By Nancy E. Boone

The Legacy Cities conference held in Cleveland in June had preservationists from across the nation thinking about what more we can do to contribute to the rejuvenation of struggling, high-vacancy neighborhoods in older industrial cities. A lot of the talk centered around flexibility: focusing on preservation of neighborhoods over individual buildings.

One tool for doing just that already exists for projects that are assisted with federal funds and therefore require Section 106 review. First issued in 1995 and updated and revised in 2006, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s Policy Statement on Affordable Housing and Historic Preservation lays out ten principles for balancing the national public goals of creating affordable housing and preserving historic buildings.* The principles provide sound guidance not only for Section 106, but several also relate more broadly to rightsizing issues in legacy cities.

Take, for example, principles III (“Review of effects in historic districts should focus on exterior features”) and IV (“Plans and specifications should adhere to the Secretary’s Standards when possible and practical” [emphasis added]). These are flexible principles that help counter the widespread perception that it’s hard to rehabilitate old buildings, especially if they are designated “historic.” As preservationists, we need to focus on realistic neighborhood-scale improvement. Some buildings will be lost, others will be reborn, and new buildings will be built, potentially energizing neighborhood revitalization through good new design.

Vacant house slated for rehabilitation in Cleveland's Slavic Village (Photo: Slavic Village Recovery Project)

Vacant house slated for rehabilitation in Cleveland’s Slavic Village (Photo: Slavic Village Recovery Project)

In many legacy cities, there is a huge pool of vacant houses and a severe shortage of decent affordable housing. How can we do more to bring the two together, to rehabilitate abandoned buildings into homes for residents of limited means? To what extent can we promote homeownership opportunities?

Can we look into our own history and remember and adapt some of the urban homesteading tools that preservationists used in the 70s and 80s? Can we identify and lessen or remove barriers to rehabilitation of affordable housing in urban neighborhoods? Flexibility is clearly part of the answer, and the ACHP’s Policy Statement on Affordable Housing and Historic Preservation is there to help.

HUD’s popular Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and HOME Investment Partnerships program also offer significant assistance. Grantees decide how and where they want to use these funds. It can be for rehabilitation, demolition, new construction, and more. You can find out your community’s vision for CDBG and HOME funds in the Consolidated Plans posted on HUD’s website. Development of the Plans is a public process. Make your ideas known.

* The Policy does not apply to Historic Tax Credit projects.

Nancy E. Boone is the Federal Preservation Officer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).