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It’s Not Obvious But It Should Be

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a relatively small federal agency, has issued a draft policy statement on the topic of Housing and Historic Preservation. Even better, they’re looking for public feedback, so if you’re interested here is your chance.

The most critical sentence in the draft, in my opinion, is on the first page: “Because approximately 40 percent of America’s current building stock is at least 50 years old, rehabilitation of historic and older buildings must play an important role in addressing the housing crisis.” Building enough new housing, whether single-family houses or apartments, to both make up for the current deficit and replace the older units in poor condition is simply not feasible. It would take too much construction capacity, cause too much pollution, use too much land, and be too expensive. The way forward will obviously include new housing, but it must also include rehab of damaged and aging houses and apartments.

Perhaps the next idea is obvious to me because I’ve been living with it for nearly my entire career, but it doesn’t matter that the vast majority of the buildings that needs to be rehabbed are not designated landmarks. They’re old and contain architectural, structural, and mechanical components and systems that don’t meet modern codes. That doesn’t mean that those pieces of buildings are bad, simply that the expertise required to deal with them lies with those of us who work on old buildings. The knowledge and skills necessary for rehab can be found with people who work in rehab, and one of the largest collections of such people is in historic preservation.

Above, a group of vacant Old Law tenements, as photographed in 1934 by an inspector of the new York City tenement House Department.