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Foundation Matters

Historic Preservation Under Fire

Posted: February 13, 2020

Alarmingly, legislation introduced in the US House and Senate mirrors the mindset of Appelbaum and cites historic preservation as a barrier to affordable housing. The Yes in My Backyard Act (H.R 4351 and S. 1919) aims to “discourage the use of discriminatory land use policies and remove barriers to making housing more affordable.” Reducing the impact of historic preservation on housing production and affordability is among the several land use policies identified in the legislation. The Senate bill goes further by suggesting, “reducing the number of buildings protected by historic preservation.” HCF staunchly opposes these bills.

Historic Preservation and Housing Affordability

At its very essence, historic preservation lends itself to housing affordability. Historic district designations mean fewer demolitions of existing affordable housing stock, displacement of residents and subsequent construction of new, grander housing that is no longer affordable. Density is another important contributor to affordability; historic districts are typically the densest districts in urbanized areas across the nation.

HCF has worked diligently for many years to address this multi-faceted housing problem. Keeping older housing maintained and occupied is one of the Foundation’s approaches to keeping housing affordable. That’s why HCF has taken a lead role in providing funding through its Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative to purchase and rehabilitate historic houses, partnering with Habitat for Humanity and the City of Charleston to rehabilitate houses for lower-income homeowners committing to stay for 20-30 years, and providing seed funding for the Palmetto Community Land Trust whose portfolio includes scattered historic properties and new construction that maintains affordability in perpetuity.

Together with affordable housing partner organizations, HCF is an active participant in providing housing opportunities at all income levels and seeking new opportunities to develop housing that will remain affordable for generations of Charlestonians. In 2017, HCF provided seed funding to the Palmetto Community Land Trust (PCLT), whose mission is to provide housing that will remain affordable in perpetuity. The concept of creating a community land trust in Charleston arose from a gentrification study of the peninsula that HCF funded. HCF works closely with the PCLT throughout Charleston and holds a seat on its Board of Directors. Most recently, the PCLT was able to secure affordability in perpetuity for the Sea Island Apartments on Johns Island, which were at the end of the affordability term limit, thereby avoiding the scenario where the residents would have been displaced when the units converted to market rate. HCF also has been a strong advocate for the City’s fee-in-lieu program, in which developers can pay funds directly to the City’s Affordable/Workforce Housing Account in exchange for developing larger buildings.

One major threat to housing affordability in Charleston has been the mass proliferation of hotels, which has displaced housing and other diverse uses. Struck with a conundrum of too many zoning conversion requests to hotels and limited ability of the City’s Board of Zoning Appeals to regulate them, the Mayor appointed a Hotel Task Force to study hotels and their effect on the City. HCF was an active member of the Hotel Task Force, successfully advocating for diversity in land use with an eye to keeping existing housing affordable, reducing the displacement of existing workforce units and funding the creation of new workforce housing stock.

The resulting Accommodations Overlay ordinance provides clear intent that the City places a high value on assuring affordable housing for all and requires developers of new hotels to contribute $5.10 per square foot of sleeping units to the City’s Affordable/Workforce Housing Account. Further, the ordinance makes it difficult to convert dwelling units to accommodations by requiring a five-year waiting period or construction of replacement like-kind housing. A similar provision for conversion of office space is included in the ordinance to ensure access to well-paying jobs. Last fall, HCF settled litigation regarding an accommodations use proposed for 431 Meeting Street. Not only was HCF able to galvanize the community around the ordinance via that litigation, but HCF also was able to securewhat will likely be over a million dollars for affordable housing as part of the settlement.

To the critics, historic preservation can be and already is an active part of the solution to the affordable housing crisis. In our view, historic preservation is not adhering unflinchingly to the past, dodging solutions and saying “no” to progress; it is the lens through which we view progress. Preservation provides the means for cities to hold on to the character that makes them unique and economically robust, while rising to the challenges the 21st century presents. And HCF, in advancing its preservation mission, is committed to that.

Photo: Homes in the Capitol Hill Historic District in Washington. Credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times

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