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Is Historical Preservation What's Keeping Cities From Building Affordable Housing?

Are wealthy city dwellers preventing new development by holding on to the past? Or is there room for lots of new housing while still maintaining the character of urban landscapes? The answer is, of course, complicated.

Is Historical Preservation What's Keeping Cities From Building Affordable Housing?

[Photos: Flickr user Jay Woodworth]

Fifty years after New York City created its groundbreaking 1965 landmark law, in response to the beautiful old Penn Station’s demolition, historic preservation is a hot topic in one of the country’s most expensive cities to live.

The affordable housing crisis has led to an intense debate over what values are most important as urban areas evolve. On the one hand, people value neighborhoods like New York’s Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights for their character and vitality—and tourists, businesses, and the wealthy flock there to work and live. On the other, the only real solution to the affordable housing crisis, advocates say, is to build more, denser, and taller housing—and historic districts have become too large a barrier to doing this.

Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University economist, made the point at the recent Cities for Tomorrow conference hosted by the New York Times: "We’ve made it impossible to build and impossible to change the most economically and culturally viable parts of the country by ceding to NIMBY-ists," he said. "The right answer is not to straightjacket mass neighborhoods . . . it’s so important we allow cities to continue to change and keep growing."

New York City has 138 historic districts, which are groups of buildings, blocks, and sometimes whole neighborhoods defined by a "distinct sense of space" and a "coherent streetscape" that represents one historic architecture style. Within them, demolishing some buildings is banned and others can only be replaced by architecture in keeping with the area’s existing character. Hence, the theory goes, it’s going to be pretty hard to build a new residential, affordable unit high-rise in the heart of the Upper East Side, perpetuating a cycle that only allows the wealthy to afford living in this area.

But how big an effect does this really have? That’s the crux of the debate. Preservation advocates note that only 4% of New York City is included in a historic district. They say this small amount of land will not tip the balance on affordable housing one way or another.

"To say that historic districts are responsible for the lack of affordability is to say that the federal deficit is to blame on the amount that goes to veterans benefits," Donovan Rypkema, a principal at the real estate and economic development consulting firm PlaceEconomics, said at the conference.

That may be true, but if you are concerned about Manhattan becoming a playground for only the elite, another statistic also matters: More than 20% of land area in Manhattan is landmarked in a district.

"If we have a vision that we’re going to build towers for low-income people and put them in the most distant part of the city," says Glaeser, "that feels profoundly disturbing to me. The heart of the city is the mixing of different groups."

Dueling research studies released this year support both points of view, according to City Limits.

A May report by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, prepared by PlaceEconomics, found that historic districts are already the most dense areas in their boroughs, according to City Limits. Another, by the Historic Districts Council, found that, between 1970 and 2020, historic district designation hasn’t seemed to affect rents and affordability much compared to other neighborhoods.

But other studies contradict these claims. A report by NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that historic districts mostly had the same density as surrounding areas and also had far less new construction in the last decade. They also were often wealthier and whiter (especially in Manhattan).

No one is arguing that developers be allowed to trammel over New York’s most treasured places, as they did in the first half of the 20th century. But to both sides, it’s important to understand what it is that we value about historic places and how that can be blended with the needs of today’s modern social dilemmas.

Donovan says historic preservation has also changed with the times. It used to be about preserving monumental buildings that once housed rich, dead white guys. Most new districts and buildings today are about preserving ties to the city’s ignored populations, including African-American and LGBT history. "Historic preservation today," he says," is about the evolution of the story of the city," he says.

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