The Blessings of Old Housing Stock

by James A. Bacon

Among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Richmond and Washington have relatively large stocks of pre-1940 housing, while Hampton Roads has relatively little, according to data published by Wendell Cox at the NewGeography.org blog. As a rule, regions with the youngest housing stock are Sun Belt metros like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Orlando, while regions with the oldest housing stock are located in the Northeast: Boston, Providence and Buffalo.

The thrust of Cox’s blog post is to argue that “historically core municipalities” don’t all look the same: “For example, the core cities of Phoenix and Philadelphia have approximately the same population. Yet they could not be more different. Philadelphia has a long history, including a time as the nation’s largest city around the period of the Revolutionary War. Phoenix, in contrast, is a product of the post-World War II boom.”

One of the biggest surprises I found in Cox’s data is the utter lack of older housing in the historically core municipalities of Hampton Roads — only 1.1%. Actually, I can’t help but wonder if that’s in error. The City of Norfolk did bulldoze much of its pre-war housing in 1960s-era slum clearances, but there are still some older neighborhoods there, not to mention in the older, core cities of Portsmouth and Hampton.

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s my question: Is a surfeit of old housing a good thing or a bad thing? I think it’s a good thing. But it’s not the housing, as much as the prevailing form of urban design when the housing was built. Most pre-1940 housing was built in compact, moderate-density communities on grid streets, often with appropriately scaled retail, professional and commercial buildings mixed in.

The Fan neighborhood of Richmond is one of the greatest, most livable neighborhoods in America. Most of it was built between 1900 and 1930. After going through a period of decay, the district has been thoroughly renovated. The streets, laid out in a grid system and dotted with mini-parks, are a pleasure to walk. Thanks to the mixed uses permitted in the neighborhood, the Fan is chockablock with restaurants, corner stores and professional buildings. For good reason, Fan residents are fan-atics about where they live. (I want to move back there sooooo bad!)

Admittedly, some older neighborhoods of Richmond, especially in the east end, are riddled with poverty and all it entails, including abandoned and uninhabitable housing. Clearly, small lots, grid streets and corner stores are no magical formula for prosperity. I would argue, however, that they do at least lend themselves to revitalization. Neighborhoods with good bones have the potential to become places where middle-class families want to live, which means that they will be gentrified eventually. Indeed, large swaths of Church Hill in Richmond’s east end have been salvaged, largely by households of young, educated professionals who place a premium on the near-downtown location and the architecture of the 19th-century houses, and who are willing to put in sweat equity and brave the hazards of living in high-crime neighborhoods.

By contrast, who is moving into Richmond’s aging, close-in “suburbs”? Poor people. There are some neighborhoods where no one else wants to live.Built in the 1950s and 1960s, these neighborhoods have nothing worth investing in, nothing worth salvaging. Thus, as the City of Richmond is progressively gentrified, poverty is leaking into Henrico and Chesterfield counties. Unless there is a sudden resurgence of middle-class demand for 1,500-square-foot ranchers on dead end streets, these forsaken neighborhoods will become the slums of tomorrow.

15 Responses to The Blessings of Old Housing Stock

  1. I have a question – is a 20 story modern building replaces a 2-story single family brownstone – is that a “smarter growth” ?

  2. How do you rehabilitate older homes in a city into habitable homes that are affordable to the people currently living in the run-down, blighted homes?

    there have always been and will always be some members of society who simply cannot afford to live in the kind of housing that other, more affluent folks can afford.

    It’s a lot like cars. Some folks simply cannot afford a brand new car so they buy used ones – and they cannot afford to keep them in excellent condition either. They just do the best they can.

    So they find housing that basically is run down and not in good repair and the folks who own them – will never see them as investment properties in the sense that if they improve them – that they’ll get more money for them.

    I’m not sure this has much to do with city vs surburb and gentrification per se other than the fact that some people who do have the resources see some carefully-selected places that are in transition as potential bargains worth repairing and living in.

    But there are many, many places where no matter how cheap the property is – are untenable places in terms of being a safe place for them and their families. No amount of money spent on improving those houses is going to make them places where they want to live.

    All old housing stock in not equal.

    Much of the old housing stock is in locations that are, in the minds of manner, unfit and unsafe places – and they will never be particularly valued as “old housing stock” in the same way that other “older housing stock” is valued.

    not about suburbs at all..in my view… the same thing CAN and DOES happen in suburbs… for those that don’t believe this – you should take a few trips out in the country and see what happens to “old housing stock” in the country. There are tons and tons of older and abandoned homes – now replaced with double-wides.

    why is that? it’s the same reason. The people who live there cannot afford to fix up and maintain the older home so they put a double-wide up in the backyard. Go out into the country – not the suburbs – but the country – the truly rural places – and drive around and observe the housing stock…..

    Some of these discussions seem to veer away from some of the realities that are at the root of the issues.. IMHO of course.

  3. Jim Bacon: “But it’s not the housing, as much as the prevailing form of urban design when the housing was built.”

    Line this article “The Blessings of Old Housing Stock” up side by side with Jim’s earlier article “Broken Streams and Broken Dreams.”

    Then start connecting the dots between the articles.

    Watch how these connected dots grow to paint an incredible pattern of solutions. Like revelations they emerge. Showing the way to better more workable neighborhoods for every one. Making places everywhere work.

    Even like Fan, Richmond. And Charleston SC and Savannah, work.

    Then consider Jim’s failed motorist’s door law. How stuff needs fixing.

  4. How do teardowns fit into this discussion? They are rampant within the Beltway.

    Personally, I don’t mind them so long as the replacement house conforms to the zoning ordinance and is in character with the neighborhood. Bigger houses are not bad. Ones that overpower the neighbors are.

    • I agree that new houses that replace tear downs in older neighborhoods often do not work for the reasons you mention.

      I’m often impressed, however, at the creativity and flare of home additions. In many older DC neighborhoods, you can walk residential streets without a clue as to what’s going on. Then walk the back alleys behind those same home-fronts, and be amazed.

      Perhaps, such home additions are mostly done by folks “improving” what they already love. Hence the wonderful result.

  5. You forgot the city’s desires for a neighborhood trump a homeowner’s. Just try getting funding to fix up a place when the city decides they want new housing instead. The only thing you can do then is sell, but the only buyer is the low ball city itself. Because they want the lots to give to a ‘trusted’ developer.

  6. re: “the devils work”…. geeze Reed….

    re: evil re-development

    it’s no secret that re-development has been traditionally a top-down, govt-led endeavor.

    it’s much easier to find a developer with the financial ability to re-do a city block than to try to do that block one house at a time especially when some owners have no financial ability to participate.

    this actually goes to a much bigger question about governance and government services and infrastructure in densely populated areas….

    to give one small example. When the sewer breaks in front of your house and it costs 100,000 or more to fix it – how come it’s not your responsibility to pay for it to be fixed?

    • “it’s no secret that re-development has been traditionally a top-down, govt-led endeavor.

      it’s much easier to find a developer with the financial ability to re-do a city block than to try to do that block one house at a time especially when some owners have no financial ability to participate.”

      Yes, Larry I’m quite familiar with Soviet, East German style urban renewal.

      • The government’s ability “to take” people’s homes away from them should never be “easy or convenient”. It should be strictly limited.

        I also agree with those who believe that a Government action that takes ones home away from them and turns over to another private person so the latter can make a profit, is morally wrong and bad public policy. And it’s highly corrosive, a very slippery slope.

        Many consider some recent Court decisions in this area highly problematic. I agree. And suspect that the law is in flux.

        Force by its very nature tends to strip value out of the property taken. It also strips human beings of homes they’ve lawfully and rightfully acquired, a highly intrusive and disrespectful act.

        In addition, Government fiat rarely achieves good urban renewal. Typically the reverse occurs. Particularly when its made “easy” and done for “convenience.” There is absolutely nothing convenient about good real estate development, whether renewal or otherwise. Surely that lesson is amply demonstrated by history. (See books The Power Broker, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities cited on this website under article “Smart Growth for Everyone.”

        The key to good urban renewal is putting in place opportunities for development that INCREASE the value of existing homes so their owners sell voluntarily. This way everyone wins. Whole blocks of homes within the R/B corridor became part a vibrant new community this way.

        Meanwhile no one’s rights were abused. Government did not dictate results. And thus a world class new downtown was born. One built by the small voluntary actions of thousands of citizens acting in their own interests, under a loose schematic plan of many options wisely designed to create wealth for all who lived there. The place now is a gift that keeps on giving. As opposed to one that keeps on costing.

      • re: soviet style

        Reed – do you use public roads?

        do you use public water/sewer?

        do you use electricity that comes to you a public rights-of-ways?

        I’m not justifying any govt taking land for re-development – I’m totally opposed to that.

        but I point out that re-development does not happen unless Govt is willing to get involved and as well – developers with enough deep pockets to deal with city-block scale tear-down and re-construction.

        There are lots of cities in the world where there are few if any rules and the govt is truly minimal and in those places, there are cardboard shacks next to cinderblock buildings next to office buildings …no safe potable water.. sewer in the dirt streets and electric wires strung willy-nilly between buildings.

        there may well be more cities like that – than there are cities with rules and an active govt that takes responsibility for potable water, sewage systems and treatment plants.. public roads and rights of way for electricity.

        you apparently take these things for granted and believe they exist not because of govt.

        • Actually, I agree with most of what you say, Larry.

          But HOW government, citizens, and private enterprise involve themselves in the process makes all the difference.

          And like you, I am all for good and effective government. And appreciate it greatly when it works. Arlington County – 1970 – 2000 – it’s a shinning example. May well be so now for all I know.

          • re: “how”

            mostly elected governance… governance that can be removed … if enough citizens disagree with the way it is working

            or in some cases.. Constitutional Amendments.

  7. Another installment in Jim Bacon’s “Back to the Future” series. Jim’s eyes grow misty as he peers through rose colored glasses at the great days before 1940. People built smaller homes then because … well, people were smarter. The Great Depression doesn’t figure into Jim’s analysis. And there was appropriately scaled retail. Yes, a stroll down Main Street included a stop at the butcher, the baker and the candle stick maker. I wonder how much of a family’s disposable income was consumed by the necessities of life back when retail was “appropriately scaled”? Maybe the houses were smaller because people didn’t have much left over after buying food and clothing from 12 – 15 different specialty shops.

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