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Do historic districts help or hurt affordability?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018 by Jack Craver

There is a wide range of views about how historic preservation rules relate to Austin’s housing affordability problems.

Some argue that actions taken to prevent the demolition of old homes advance affordability because, in general, older homes are cheaper than new ones. When a home is torn down, it is almost always replaced by one that is larger and more expensive.

Others argue that historic preservation rules, particularly if they are geared toward preserving older single-family homes, contribute to the city’s shortage of affordable housing.

The July 10 meeting of the Planning Commission put both perspectives on display.

In a presentation to the commission, Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Cara Bertron argued that Austin’s historic preservation districts are facilitating the preservation of lower-cost housing. She also rejected the notion that historic zoning necessarily prevents the construction of new density, highlighting a number of historic properties that have added accessory dwelling units (also known as garage apartments).

“There is an opportunity to preserve that context and provide ADUs,” said Bertron. “You have this density that’s built into the historic fabric of the neighborhood.”

In addition to 18 areas of the city that are on the National Register of Historic Places, there are five local historic districts that City Council has approved since establishing the process through a 2004 ordinance: the Castle Hill Historic District, the Hyde Park Historic District, the Harthan Street Historic District, the Aldridge Place Historic District and the Mary Street Historic District. Another proposed district – the Smoot Terrace Park Historic District – is currently being considered by Council.

The districts can vary widely in size. The Harthan Street district is made up of only 10 properties, while the Hyde Park district includes hundreds.

Commissioner Trinity White pointed out that repairing and maintaining a home that has been designated as a historic property is often more difficult and more expensive because of strict requirements about the types of material that can be used and the types of changes that can be made.

Bertron acknowledged that that was true but said that often the higher-quality material – such as a window – is more cost-effective in the long run. She conceded, however, that the long-term benefit was not necessarily a sufficient consolation to cash-strapped homeowners.

“I think it’s a challenge in terms of equity to say, ‘This will pay off, but you need to put up a little more money up front,’ and that’s something we need to work on,” said Bertron.

At one point in her presentation, Bertron presented statistics that showed that older housing is much cheaper on average than new housing. Commissioner Greg Anderson said that the statistics are both “completely accurate and misleading.”

When zoning regulations dictate that a developer cannot replace an old single-family home with anything else but a new single-family home, the new home is obviously going to be far more expensive, said Anderson. However, if land in Central Austin were “zoned more appropriately” to allow greater density, he argued, then old homes would sometimes be replaced by larger multifamily developments that would include cheaper units.

Anderson said that he was not against historic preservation, but that the city should not do so at the expense of adding new housing, particularly in older neighborhoods in the urban core.

“If we don’t allow entitlements for hundreds or thousands of new units in those areas, we are by default pushing people out,” said Anderson.

Commissioner Karen McGraw represented a very different perspective on the issue, saying that Austin had “missed the mark” on historic preservation districts. While the city began efforts to protect historic properties in 1974, it was not until 2004 that City Council approved an ordinance establishing a process for creating entire districts. To McGraw, the historic value of a property often comes from its part of an entire architectural “community.”

McGraw also said that historic zoning does not necessarily prevent change.

“Don’t think that if you can’t tear down every single house, we can’t densify,” she said.

Photo by Dtobias [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons.

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