Fight with Richard Florida. Check. It’s like a well-known rite of passage for any academic. I have always taken issue with some of the destructive reporting and advocacy at CityLab. One day they’re categorically against public housing authorities (which do a lot of good), the next they’re against all streetcar projects for some reason, and it so happened that over the weekend the new fashionable stance is against historic districts. Not just any one historic district, but you know, ALL of them. Richard Florida then indignantly defended throwing Rust Belt historic preservation under the bus, saying they “aren’t pro or anti city, [but rather just] objective and fact based.” Rather than wait for the other side to get an article, here are my own objective and fact-based responses. Whatever that means.
Their stable of writers remind me of that crazy uncle (in my case, my very own Dad is our family’s crazy uncle) who can’t have nice things, and sees an ulterior motive behind every corner. In other words, Citizens Against Virtually Everything. You just can’t win for trying.
In fact, CityLab would like to unite with Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin who according to a twitter exchange I had with the author Kriston Capps, have the “right idea for the wrong reasons.” So there you have it, when Tea Party Republicans aren’t busy regulating water quality in Flint, they’ve got a lazer focus on the housing affordability crisis caused by historic districts. Right. And the splash photo accompanying the article was that of a baby literally being thrown out with the bathwater. (I wish)
In case you doubt that the reputable (supposedly?) people over at CityLab would actually write and subsequently publish this:
Houses, on the other hand, are often poor candidates for historic preservation. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for people who love residential architecture (as I do). Historic homes and neighborhoods can be immensely significant, culturally and architecturally. But houses belong to owners, and in the U.S., the tried-and-true way to build wealth is to acquire real estate. Historic homes, typically gorgeous single-family homes, are often powerful assets.
So when local- and state-government bodies grant preservation status to historic districts—sometimes entire neighborhoods—they do not always simply protect culture, architecture, and history. Sometimes they also shore up wealth, status, and power.
So the charge, so far as I read it, is that insisting on single family zoning of historic homes not only squeezes low income families into a housing problem, but is actually just a conspiracy to “shore up wealth, status, and power.” Also, the author could have pointed to some research on this. That would have lent an understanding of how HP districts work in the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin), which is where this article is premised.
“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations?” said Wisconsin Republican State Senator Frank Lasee in a statement. “Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy.”
I’m a little shocked by the credence CityLab is lending to this essentially anti-intellectual argument. There aren’t 40 pages of rules telling you what you can and can’t do with your historic home. There is a helpful guide that may or may not be that long, but I assure you that the rules can fit on one sheet. This goes to Richard Florida: I’ve been a long-time supporter, but come on man. If you take yourself seriously, you can’t be the publisher of ignorant CAVE talk. What is this FOX News? Here are the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which are mostly just good practice for us all.
Behre reports that Charleston is changing its architectural-review process, which could ease the way for more ambitious growth. Charleston residents aren’t all against the idea. And as his longtime readers know, the people of Charleston bear an authentic interest in architecture; it’s not a front. Still, the same class of argument being levied against cutting-edge campus design is being used to thwart more affordable housing, and that’s a problem. The result is a Charleston elite of increasingly wealthy downtown residents, and an affordable housing crisis for everybody else.
This giant paragraph-long sentence fragment literally blew up my WordPress, but it’s important to get it in here because of how wrong it is. It’s the crucible closing argument in a whole vignette Capps wrote decying Charleston as “a model for how not to do preservation.” Charleston is actually not a model as much as it is a grandfather of the historic preservation movement. I erroneously wrote in this paragraph that the National Trust conference was in Charleston, when it was actually in Savannah – two cities I frequently combine, to be honest. Thanks to Jennifer Bailey for pointing this out, as well as this fun fact of the day: Charleston was actually the first city (1931) to designate its own local historic districts.
I can not actually speak to everything that has ever transpired in Charleston, and if it’s anything like my own hometown or the cities I’ve grown to call home, I certainly can’t defend everything they have ever done. I share Capps’ passion for equitable urban development. Here’s the bottom line: How many low-income accessible jobs are supported by the tourism industry in South Carolina? How many cities, not beaches, in South Carolina have a tourism industry?
I’ll do the research on that, just because it’s not difficult. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that of Charleston’s 331,000 non-farm jobs, Leisure and Hospitality account for 46,000. You can look this stuff up. 46,000, and that’s not even counting all of the services supported by that Leisure and Hospitality industry. Altogether it’s a HUGE opportunity for low-income families where the bread winner may not have a college degree. And it’s made possible by something as annoying as Charleston’s unique historic charm and its resistance to modernity.
I would argue that Charleston IS a model for how TO do preservation: Focus on critical mass, preserving the larger context, and doing something significant enough. Preservation shouldn’t be about saving one landmark here, an old school there, etc. It’s value is in the whole, not the pieces. Few communities have been more successful at turning historic districts with heritage tourism into an economic engine, but something like this exists at a smaller scale in many of our communities, wherever we call home. This type of grassroots economic development is the essence of the patented Main Street Approach.
Read on for the grand hoorah:
That case against historic districting is similar to the case against protectionist single-family zoning anywhere. And the question isn’t just aesthetic, it’s constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year on “disparate impact” means that wealthy communities cannot keep affordable housing out because wealthy residents feel that they’re better off without it. The federal government’s Affordable Furthering Fair Housing rule means that cities and neighborhoods cannot use single-family zoning to keep affordable housing at bay.
As cities confront the growing nationwide housing crisis, there will be both a need and a market for building more densely, even in the most precious neighborhoods. Historic preservation is a tool better used to protect community assets, not private assets. Historic preservation is a tool better used to safeguard the historical resources in which everyone can take pride—not the historical resources that were only ever allotted to winners by race-based housing policies.
It’s always nice when an author just comes right out and says what he/she really wants to say. While the author didn’t exactly do that, he came close by just spitting out whatever he thought might stick… Supreme Court! Disparate impact! Wealthy communities! Single-family zoning! Nationwide housing crisis! The end [mic drop].
There is indeed a nationwide housing crisis. My generation is saddled with debt, over-educated, and more often than not living at home in the ‘rents basement. I’d be doing that myself if the family basement wasn’t already snagged…by my little brother…so alas, I venture out into the cold in the Rust Belt, where Millennials actually can make it these days. Michigan and Wisconsin are in the Rust Belt, and Michigan is a place I go often. Have even worked on some projects pertaining to its communities and have networked with many of its housing/development/planning professionals. They do good work Up North, and withstand a lot of blows from the Snyder regime. HP has always been under fire with this regime, and generally if Rick Snyder doesn’t like you, you must be doing something right!
One of Snyder’s first actions was eliminating the historic tax credit (which was a blow to every community in the state, esp Detroit), which he then followed-up with a new rule that HUD’s Hardest Hit Funds need not undergo a Section 106 Review. Sec. 106 is a SHPO review process that all federally-funded projects undergo in order to ensure our taxpayer dollars aren’t irreparably leveling cities left and right. We try to keep the wanton destruction to a minimum, but what can ya do? Snyder’s 2nd move was to expedite the extent to which HUD money can be used to dynamite what’s left of Detroit, basically. Now the latest is the proposal to “ban” historic districts, which is really just the hat trick! For you southerners, that means a 3-fer. What-a-deal (if you hate history). I drew the above handy diagram in case the direction of this arc is lost on you.
Furthermore, the article shows zero understanding of how community development in the Midwest works. The assumption is that the wealthy are clinging to their historic homes or moving in en masse, pushing out the poor, and giving us the nationwide affordability crisis.
Actually what is happening is that cities are clinging for dear life, desperate for families to move back, regardless of socioeconomic background. Historic districts in the Midwest aren’t bucolic small towns inside the big cities. In reality they are full of life and diversity. They are the densest parts of Midwestern cities. They are a home for immigrant communities, creative class, young professionals, and minority families – all of whom call each other neighbors. They are what is working amidst a lot of dysfunction in our cities. According to this Fannie Mae report, historic rehabilitation accounts for 50-60% of all construction activity in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and D.C. It is nearly 80% of what is happening in St. Louis.
As for Detroit, you better go see it now, because if the State of Michigan gets its way, there won’t be much left. In Detroit, historic districts are actually the only stable parts of the city. I would argue that anything that can provide stability in that city is a good thing. According to this article, historic designation has largely kept foreclosures out of historic districts. It has also injected these communities with federal historic tax credit equity, that they are desperately in need of. State tax credit equity was also brought forth by historic designations, before Snyder killed that. It’s not just Detroit, either. This is typical of every large Midwestern city with declining or stable growth. It’s called “asset-based revitalization,” which is the strategy where you work with the people and the building you already got.
Not only are these Rust Belt historic districts NOT pushing poor people out, they have actually been one of our best strategies to repopulate inner city neighborhoods. In almost every case, these neighborhoods are growing more income-diverse, which is exactly the goal of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. Before you cite policy, you might actually want to read the policy. Not only are these neighborhoods attractive for affordable housing projects (I believe in putting affordable housing in good communities, but that’s just me), but oftentimes historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits work together. In Ohio, Round 15 of Historic Preservation Tax Credits (the most recent) alone made possible $32.5 million in rural affordable housing, where the need is greatest in our state.
During a twitter exchange with the author, I and Belt Magazine asked him where in Michigan have historic districts pushed out the poor? He offered Grand Rapids. Again, Reeeeeeesearch man. It turns out that in Grand Rapids, historic districts are gaining safe, decent, affordable housing in the 100s of units. This article alone cites several concrete examples that combine historic and affordable. I could go on ad nauseum, but instead Let ME Google This For You. In the Midwest we’re big on teaching people (pundits) to fish (research on their own). Wait no, he only meant that Grand Rapids spawned the Michigan GOP. Not sure what that has to do with the price of rice in China, but the more you know!
Many state historic tax credit programs actually have an inclusionary affordable requirement, which is as much as anyone can do to combat the nationwide affordable housing crisis. You can look that up on the Novoco website. In the end, fixing this problem won’t come from finding a panacea. The problems are multi-faceted, and so must be the solution. What is working, ie historic preservation, must be a part of that calculus. Killing historic districts isn’t just throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it’s throwing the bathwater out with the baby.