Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: May 19-25, 2005
Byline: Gregory Heller

We’re History: Why historic preservation efforts are vital in low-income neighborhoods

Last summer, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell convened the Historic Preservation Task Force — a group of preservationists, planners, developers and commissioners charged with improving the city’s controversial process of nominating historic districts. One of several federal and local preservation designations, Philadelphia Historic Districts are very protective, subjecting demolition and alteration of certain structures to a strict review process. The task force recently held its final public meeting and presented a draft report with its findings and recommendations. The report contains valuable suggestions for the Historical Commission, but the public meetings were loud, divisive and disturbing. Clearly, we have a bigger problem on our hands than anyone imagined.

The main source of conflict is that many residents view historic districts as a municipal weapon to gentrify vibrant, hardworking communities or to turn neighborhoods into museums to attract tourist dollars. Blackwell convened the task force in the wake of a major controversy surrounding the nomination of Spruce Hill in West Philadelphia. The debate over Spruce Hill is fraught with racial and economic overtones. Neighborhood opponents portray the nomination as a method to displace them and continue the rise in housing prices due to “Penntrification.”

In many cities, historic districts are sources of pride — valuable tools protecting local residents from forces that would demolish irreplaceable buildings and destroy the character of cherished neighborhoods. In Philadelphia, many believe historic districts have negative impacts on low-income communities. But this is not the case. In fact, low-income communities may have more to gain than wealthier ones.

Some wrongly believe that communities with limited resources do not care about their history. The truth is, rich or poor, Philadelphians love their history and the look and feel of their neighborhoods. The issue for most residents is the perceived added cost of home repairs and tax burdens that come with living in a historic district. Fortunately, the city offers a tool to relieve this burden in the form of a tax abatement. When homeowners make building repairs, they do not have to pay taxes on the resulting increase in property value for 10 years, and there is no minimum level of repair required to qualify. Still, home repair is often more expensive in historic districts. The city recently requested proposals for the establishment of an agency to oversee a $1 million historic-property repair program, subsidizing costs for those whose incomes qualify. This will allow homeowners to afford historic repair, in addition to keeping taxes from going up substantially once the repair is made. Previously viewed as a liability, historic home repair could be a great asset for low-income homeowners.

While most of Philadelphia’s historic districts are in well-off areas, it is our poorest areas that need protection the most. Philadelphia is seeing a major building boom as developers invest in up-and-coming neighborhoods, rehabbing historic buildings when it would be cheaper to tear them down and start a new. People move to areas like Northern Liberties, Mt. Airy, Bella Vista, Manayunk, University City, East Falls or Fishtown for their distinctive historic and vibrant urban character. New buildings in these neighborhoods are built to fit in — not to stick out.

In poorer areas, there aren’t new residents with money demanding that developers maintain the character of a neighborhood. Developers — or the city for that matter–don’t hesitate to tear down dilapidated houses in North or West Philly that would be rehabbed and renovated in a wealthier community. They develop modern, ugly or out-of-character buildings in a beloved but poor area. Historic buildings are our neighborhoods’ greatest assets for revitalization. By destroying them, we deprive our poorest neighborhoods of valuable opportunities for current residents and business owners.

Some financial incentives now exist to make historic designation a positive tool for low-income communities, but we can and should do better. Since so few areas qualify for historic designation, the city should use every tool possible to ensure that residents can afford to stay there. There ought to be real incentives that come only with historic designation. The tax abatement program is citywide and has limited impact. How about a freeze in market increase on taxes for low-income residents in historic districts? How about a local counterpart to the federal historic tax incentive program, which utilizes tax credits to make historic rehabilitation more affordable? Such incentives could help residents stay in, protect, and rebuild their neighborhoods.

The Historical Commission will soon be getting a new executive director. He or she must put a more progressive face on the commission, marketing the advantages of designation and dispelling the notion that preservation is just for those who can afford it. Everyone must come away understanding that historic designation is a desirable tool, a source of pride and an asset to our communities. In that way, we will protect our poorest areas, celebrate all of our historic neighborhoods and renew the essence of what it means to live in Philadelphia.

Gregory Heller is director of planning for the Parkside Historic Preservation Corporation in Philadelphia.