Preservation Magazine, Spring 2016

President's Note: Fighting Displacement

Last issue I noted how today, historic preservation is better positioned to address the problems communities face than ever before. For many Americans in cities, the biggest crisis now and in the foreseeable future is a dearth of affordable housing, and the potential for community displacement this situation creates.

Simply put, the rent is just too high. Average rents in New York and San Francisco hit new heights in 2015, with a one-bedroom apartment commanding more than $3,000 a month. Fourteen cities around the country saw double-digit growth in rents last year. A recent Harvard study found that nearly half of households making between $30,000 and $45,000 a year are now paying close to a third of their income on rent. And small businesses, with fewer legal protections against exorbitant rent hikes, are facing even more dire straits.

There is sometimes a perception that preservation is driving excessive rents by making older neighborhoods more attractive to well-heeled outsiders, and by ostensibly limiting the housing supply. We have been heartened by recent research, by our Preservation Green Lab and others, that suggests instead that preservation supports existing residents across the economic spectrum, and that an improving neighborhood does not necessarily lead to locals being pushed out.

One terrific example of this is in Macon, Georgia, where the Historic Macon Foundation has been renovating homes in the Beall’s Hill neighborhood. Historic Macon never displaces current landowners by acquiring occupied houses, and it counters displacement in other ways, such as building houses designed to be affordable for families and operating a robust historic tax credit consulting service.

There are plenty of ways to increase density and affordability in cities while saving older buildings. A survey of vacant and underused properties across one-third of New York City found more than 3,500 vacant buildings and nearly 2,500 vacant lots—enough to house 200,000 people comfortably. In San Francisco, the city’s one-space-per-unit parking requirement in most areas has been thought to increase the cost of affordable housing. Experts argue that removing it would enable 24 percent more residents to buy their own homes.

Indeed, rather than exacerbating the crisis, creative adaptive reuse projects all over the country are expanding housing options and helping cities become more affordable. These projects demonstrate that history, sustainability, fairness, and economic vitality can all go hand in hand. Let’s continue this work, and recommit going forward to helping historic neighborhoods develop and rebuild in a way that includes all residents.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

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