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Historic Housing for All: Historic Preservation as the New Inclusionary Zoning

Historic Housing for All: Historic Preservation as the New Inclusionary Zoning

Elizabeth M. Tisher

When Americans celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’s birth this year, they reflected on her tireless advocacy for vibrant, diverse cities in the face of widespread urban renewal.[1] Jacobs championed an animated streetscape of unique buildings, old and new; an eclectic array of merchants; and colorful, if chaotic, sidewalk activity—essentially “an oasis with an irresistible sense of intimacy, cheerfulness, and spontaneity.”[2] Although urban renewal cut a path of destruction through the heart of many cities during the mid-twentieth century, Jacobs’s ideas lived on to shape the historic preservation movement and many other progressive policies that have influenced modern planning.[3]

But Jacobs’s fight is far from over. Ironically, the renewed interest in urban living—and urban pioneering—that was sparked by her theories has reignited the same tensions that divided Jacobs and her contemporaries back in the 1950s: preservation versus demolition, old versus new, rich versus poor.[4] At the core of these tensions is an affordable housing crisis. Consequently, the strides Jacobs made and the polices she advanced—particularly historic preservation—are being criticized by housing advocates as obstructing affordable housing development.[5]

Thus, on Jacobs’s 100th birthday, the question on the minds of many was: on which side of the affordable housing debate would Jacobs fall?[6] Would she side with affordable housing development or the preservation of historic districts?[7] It is impossible to answer this question, and not just because Jacobs is no longer around to opine on the issue, but because it is the wrong question. We should be asking: how can historic preservation be used to further affordable housing goals?

The main argument from housing advocates is twofold: that the only way to create enough affordable housing to meet the demand is to build as much housing as possible, and that historic districts prevent development, thereby obstructing affordable housing growth.[8] This Article proposes that historic preservation is not the problem and that preservation is a necessary tool for creating and maintaining quality, affordable housing.

Part I of this Article provides a background on the tension between historic preservation and affordable housing, and lays out the argument against historic preservation. Part II examines the flawed assumptions on which the argument is premised, and explains why preservation is not the problem. Part III illustrates how historic preservation can, in fact, further affordable housing goals. Finally, Part IV explores ways in which historic preservation laws and policies can be strengthened to create more higher-quality affordable housing, while at the same time encouraging preservation.

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[1] See, e.g., Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Jane Jacobs Century, CityLab (May 4, 2016), (reflecting on Jane Jacobs’s lasting impacts on urban culture and planning).

[2] Jane Jacobs, Downtown is for People, Fortune (Sept. 18, 2011),

[3] See Libby Nelson, Jane Jacobs Believed Cities Should Be Fun—and Changed Urban Planning Forever, Vox (May 4, 2016 4:30 PM), (“Jacobs argued [that urban renewal] ignored everything that made cities great: the mixture of shops, offices, and housing that brought people together to live their lives. And her vision triumphed.”).

[4] See Peter Moskowitz, Bulldoze Jane Jacobs, Slate (May 4, 2016), (arguing that Jacobs’s vision of urbanism had shortcomings that today are being realized, as once-diverse neighborhoods have become “all-white, aesthetically suburban playground[s] for the rich”).

[5] See, e.g., Conor Dougherty, In Cramped and Costly Bay Area, Cries to Build, Baby, Build, N.Y. Times (Apr. 16, 2016), (reporting on a pro-development renters group in San Francisco, the SF Bay Area Renters’ Federation, or SFBARF, which argues that the city needs as much new development as possible, no matter the consequences). “You have to support building, even when it’s a type of building you hate,” said the head of SFBARF. Id.; see also Gabriel Metcalf, What’s the Matter with San Francisco?, CityLab (July 23, 2015), (explaining that progressive policies developed to respond to blight and urban disinvestment during the twentieth century are not effective in dealing with modern-day problems of rapid population growth and high housing costs).

[6] Kriston Capps, Whose Side in the Housing Wars Would Jane Jacobs Take Up Today?, CityLab (May 4, 2016),

[7] Id.

[8] See Dougherty, supra note 6 (discussing the tension between Bay Area progressives that pits preservation of the City’s historic beatnik charm against the accommodation of affordable housing through increased construction); Edward L. Glaeser, Preservation Follies: Excessive Landmarking Threatens to Make Manhattan a Refuge for the Rich, City J. (Spring 2010), (arguing that historic district restrictions on new construction reduce housing supply and drive up real estate costs, “mak[ing] those districts exclusive enclaves of the well-to-do, educated, and white”); Kriston Capps, Why Historic Preservation Districts Should Be a Thing of the Past, CityLab (Jan. 29, 2016), (arguing that historic districting is “protectionist single-family zoning” that “thwart[s]” access to desirable neighborhoods); Matthew Yglesias, Legalize Skyscrapers, Slate (Apr. 18, 2012 4:26 PM), (arguing that affordability problem in D.C. “could be ameliorated” by removing height restrictions and building taller).

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