August 3, 2023

At Home on Main Street: Q&A with Mike Powe and Emi Morita

Main Street America Responds to Widespread Housing Challenges

The housing crisis is affecting places across geographies and scales: urban, rural, and everything in between. The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, also known as Freddie Mac, estimates that the United States has a current shortage of 3.8 million housing units, and according to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of Americans say that housing affordability is a major problem in their locale. In 2021, Main Street America, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, launched the At Home on Main Street (AHOMS) project, funded by the 1772 Foundation, in response to widespread housing challenges in the forms of both housing availability and affordability across the country, including in many Main Street communities.

The initial components of the AHOMS project included At Home on Main Street: A Report on the State of Housing in Downtown and Neighborhood Commercial Districts, which contained analysis of housing data from the U.S. Census Bureau and insights on housing challenges within the Main Street network, as well as a virtual convening on pressing challenges and potential solutions with Main Street leaders and affiliates.

A multi-colored report cover with the title on a black background in script "A Report on the State of Housing in Downtowns and Neighborhood Commercial Districts."

photo by: Main Street America

A multi-covered report cover with the title on a yellow background and black script "A Guidebook for Local Leaders"

photo by: Main Street America

The second product, At Home on Main Street: A Housing Guidebook for Local Leaders, was released in spring 2023. The Guidebook leans on the experiences and expertise of local Main Street leaders who have engaged housing challenges, and positions that knowledge as a set of resources for people throughout the network who are new to topics related to housing development. The Guidebook also expands on ideas introduced in the first AHOMS report and showcases additional takeaways from our research, insights from Main Street-affiliated professionals, and case studies of recent housing projects from Main Street contexts.

To dig deeper into the work of AHOMS and how the preservation movement can use these resources, we emailed Mike Powe, senior director of Research and Emi Morita, research analyst at Main Street America.

Why is Main Street America focusing on housing now?

Main Street programs operate in many places that are grappling with housing issues, and a handful are already involved in local efforts to promote residential development and to support housing. Main Street America recognizes the scale of these challenges and is leveraging its national reach to try and connect programs and individuals facing similar difficulties to bolster learning opportunities and disseminate solutions. We have also heard from a growing number of Main Street program leaders that they are interested in learning more about housing and engaging with development opportunities.

What makes housing considerations in Main Street communities different from development and adaptive reuse considerations in other areas?

One of the common features of Main Street districts that affects development, and differs from other areas, is the building typologies that are often found in them. Narrow, deep parcels are typical as well as one- to three-story buildings with storefronts at ground level. These limitations on space and scale mean that many potential housing projects are likely to be small and highly customized. Building codes and other development regulations are often cited as barriers to housing projects in Main Street buildings, such as difficulties achieving means of egress and other accessibility standards. Most Main Street districts are also centrally located and historic or cultural destinations for communities, adding significance to developments that occur in them. Main Street areas are also likely to be hubs of transportation activity and other services, which can shape development opportunities and pressures.

While the reports—the second one in particular—are built as guides for Main Street managers, how do you see preservationists who don’t usually work in Main Street communities engaging with the information?

Active use and financial sustainability are often critical paths to a building’s preservation, and many older and historic buildings have vacant spaces. In one sense, our reports are really about maximizing buildings’ use and generating more revenue for building owners, which means the local economy can be strengthened and the historic fabric can remain intact. We hope preservationists will see similarities and find insights for their own work, even if it’s unrelated to housing or a Main Street context.

The content in the reports could also appeal to a wide range of folks interested in the basics of housing dynamics in denser areas, whether those involved in their local commercial districts in capacities outside of Main Street programs or those who are curious how different communities have experienced and approached their unique housing scenarios. Housing crises and housing development are forces impacting and shaping aspects of the preservation field and its priorities at large today, so we hope readers of different backgrounds will appreciate learning about housing potential in existing buildings.

Our reports are really about maximizing buildings’ use and generating more revenue for building owners, which means the local economy can be strengthened and the historic fabric can remain intact.

How does this research connect to earlier work on older building stock from the National Trust for Historic Preservation—such as Older, Smaller, Better?

Older, Smaller, Better, and the reports from the Partnership for Building Reuse with the Urban Land Institute were focused on the incredible intensity of use that older, smaller buildings have and the paths to realizing that potential in more older buildings. MSA’s housing research absolutely carries the same themes: We are focused on how housing in local Main Streets can support local economies and residents while also maximizing the potential of our existing built environment. For example, we know that vacant upper floors are a very common phenomenon—93 percent of Main Street programs reported having them in one of our recent surveys.

Many of these now-vacant upper floors historically were built as housing, a use that has value for many communities again today. MSA’s housing research incorporates the idea that there are economic, environmental, and cultural benefits to continuing the use of and reusing buildings we already have, and recognizes more work is needed to formulate widespread, replicable solutions to shared challenges. The overarching goal of this housing work is to cultivate incremental and mixed-use development in primarily older, smaller-scale commercial areas.

What’s next for the project?

We have a couple of exciting new components of our housing work in progress now. First, we are working on an Audit Tool that will be available online in the upcoming months that will recommend relevant resources to users based on their answers to questions about their community’s housing situation. Our vision for the Audit Tool is to have it function as a pathway to a growing database of housing resources that we develop, as well as external resources that we collect over time. We also just completed a pilot program with a cohort of local Main Street programs that will lead to the development of a custom-built MSA Inventory Tool.

We are focused on how housing in local Main Streets can support local economies and residents while also maximizing the potential of our existing built environment.

This tool will allow users to survey their downtowns or commercial areas and record information about the buildings and parcels such as the scale of properties, their use or vacancy status, and other key details. We hope this tool will empower local Main Street Managers to visualize and track their districts, and identify development opportunities, and that it will provide MSA insights into larger building-related patterns throughout our network so we can learn how to better support programs. Our goal is to have it available to the Main Street network by late 2023 or early 2024.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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