Preservation is not the enemy of the poor in this or any other city. Poverty and a lack of public concern and policy alternatives are.
Displacement. Urban Removal. Gentrification. All are words charged with emotion. They are being used to describe a very complex real estate development process, started and sustained by economic and social changes, which is occurring in cities across the country. Neighborhoods that have known only abandonment and disinvestment are experiencing a fairly rapid upgrading of their housing stock through rehabilitation, remodelling or restoration.
In some cities that upgrading is accompanied by an equally rapid change in the characteristics of the people who live in the housing. Low-or moderate-income renters, often members of disadvantaged minority groups or the elderly, are being replaced by middle-income buyers. The former residents are forced to compete in a tight real estate market for a reduced supply of reasonably priced housing.
In other cities, the upgrading is touching abandoned warehouses or commercial areas, bringing life to places that were totally abandoned.
American cities have experienced displacement before. The federal urban renewal and interstate highway programs of the 1950s and 1960s produced massive dislocation and left acres of vacant land and highway interchanges.
Many housing units are lost and their residents displaced each year when land is cleared for roads, office buildings, convention centers, and the expansion of community institutions such as hospitals, schools or universities. But it is the dislocation that accompanies the private market investment and rehabilitation of housing that is described as displacement.
Cities must now face the resulting reinvestment-displacement dilemma. Local elected officials and housing department managers are concerned with the plight of the displaced but they are also interested in encouraging the revitalization process. They are also interested in the higher property tax base and income tax revenue it promises.
Preservationists, few with either the income or the inclination to be members of the genetry, want both to preserve and enhance the character and architecture of what have become their communities and to retain a heterogeneous population.
It was part of the reason they chose the city. Longtime homeowners benefit from the vitality and investments of their new neighbors but may have to pay more in property taxes than their limited incomes can afford.
Everyone wants a healthy, thriving community that retains and protects the architecture of the past and provides safe, sanitary and affordable housing.
The economic realities of the 1980s, including the high cost of new housing, the energy demands of living in the suburbs, and the desire for the amenities of urban living, are all forces that contribute to the continuation and expansion of the private market rehabilitation of historically or architecturally significant buildings.
The challenge is to minimize the adverse impact of rehabilitation on those who can least afford it and to eliminate the rhetoric that implies that preservation is only for the rich -- that there has to be a choice between people and houses.
Preservation groups and city governments are working together in many communities to develop programs that will help low- and moderate-income residents stay in their neighborhoods and carry out home improvements.
In northern California, for instance, the Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage has received $200,000 from the city's federal community development block grant allocation. The money will be used to guarantee home improvement loans with very low interest rates and long repayment periods for low- and moderate-income owners of architecturally important buildings. The loans are used to correct any building code violations and to improve the facades of the homes. The foundation counsels applicants on design, rehabilitation and construction.
Other cities, such as Providence, R.I., give low-income elderly residents grants to do interior work. The loans have no interest and are repaid only when the properties are sold.
In Colorado, an organization called Historic Denver is rehabilitating abandoned housing and selling it to the former tenants. The new owners make a "sweat equity" investment and promise to keep the houses as single-family dwellings. Any exterior changes are made with the consent and advice of Historic Denver. There is a separate loan program for exterior rehabilitation, again low-interest and long-term.
The new administration in the District of Columbia has an opportunity to be a leader in the development of such solutions to the displacement-reinvestment dilemma. It can show that the preservation of the city's architectural heritage can be joined with the needs of poorer citizens.
The city owns vacant and abandoned buildings -- many of high architectural quality -- that could be rehabilitated for mixed-income housing. Soon-to-be abandoned elementary schools could serve the same purpose. Nonprofit preservaton groups, through contracts with the city, could use their expertise in rehabilitation and working with contractors to provide couseling to low- and moderate-income homeowners in historic districts.