Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

October 3, 2016

Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing

By David Reiss

photo by Ebyabe

Lior Strahilevitz has posted Historic Preservation and Its Even Less Authentic Alternative to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Historic preservation regulations are costly, contentious, and – as best we can tell – tend to promote residential segregation. Preservation as practiced in the United States also tells historical tales in a way that is inevitably selective, often more attuned to contemporary needs than historical objectivity, and likely to signal current residents and visitors about whose stories aren’t worth commemorating. Yet historical preservation, even to its critics, can further desirable goals. This essay examines traditional historic preservation strategies while also considering two potential alternatives, neither of which has received much attention.

The first alternative to traditional historic preservation – fake history – is employed on a large scale in the fastest growing residential community in the United States. The essay provides a case study of the use of fake history and theming in The Villages, Florida, revealing both the strategy’s potential for generating low-cost cultural resonance and its pitfalls. The possible connections between The Villages’ omnipresent theming and its disturbingly homogenous demographics are explored. The essay suggests that The Villages’ alternative to historic preservation might be replicated elsewhere and speculates about the demographic results of efforts to create more inclusive fake historical narratives.

A second, and novel, alternative to traditional historic preservation would select sites for historic preservation restrictions at random within a given community. Many of the problems associated with the way historic preservation regulations are implemented in the United States stem from the arbitrary and occasionally ugly battles over what to preserve and what to erase. Historic preservation becomes a battlefield for cultural warfare. Compared with this alternative, the case for randomly preserving in each city a few blocks that date from each particular era, while letting market forces dictate what gets preserved or destroyed elsewhere, may be surprisingly strong.

While I do not like either of these novel alternatives, we would certainly benefit from fresh thinking about what we are trying to achieve with historic preservation. Historic preservation remains too much of a niche area of regulation dominated by the few who feel most strongly about it. It has slowly but surely increased its reach in cities like New York. But it has not been accompanied by much serious thinking by broader constituencies about the costs and benefits of each incremental step.

There are obvious trade-offs with landmarking that don’t just affect landowners and developers. By restricting new construction, landmarking tends to restrict the supply of new housing units. This might be okay, but we should certainly think through those costs before just letting preservation districts cover more and more of a city. I am not particularly interested in communities based on fake history, but others are welcome to them. For me though, I am concerned that our most important cities might end up like Paris — stunning historic playgrounds for the wealthy, encircled by high-rise ghettos for the poor.

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