Historic Preservation

A new study from the Historic Districts Council shows that historic districts are not the enemy of affordable housing

East Preservation
Stone Street, part of Manhattan's Stone Street Historic District. (Wally Gobetz / Flickr)
Stone Street, part of Manhattan's Stone Street Historic District. (Wally Gobetz / Flickr)

Timed to the 50th anniversary of the New York City Landmarks Law, The New York Landmarks Conservancy, NYU’s Furman Center, and Historic Districts Council (HDC) issued independent studies that analyzed the impact of historic preservation on the economy, environment, and housing affordability in New York City.

The idea that historic districts drive up housing prices—and drive out poorer residents—is baked into conventional narratives of urban development. This month, the HDC, one of the city’s oldest grassroots preservation advocacy organizations, released an analytic report that shows a different side of the story.

“The Intersection of Affordable Housing and Historic Districts” uses regression analyses to compare New York City census tracts that overlap with historic districts with census that don’t overlap with historic districts. Controlling for borough location and the time a historic district was designated, along with the density of residential units, the study found that, between 1970 and 2010, historic district designation had very little effect on rental prices and the number of rent-burdened families in each district. (There was, however, a correlation in some areas between an increase in average income in some historic districts.)

Historic district designation, crucially, didn’t prevent the development of government-subsidized housing, nor did designation reduce the number of subsidized units at a rate greater than non-designated areas.

A broad survey of the results showed that there may be a negative relationship between rent burden and historic district designation. Significantly, though, a fine-grained regression showed “no statistically significant relationship of rent and income to the concentration (high or low) of residential units in historic district census tracts, or the timing of historic designation.” In historic districts, moreover, there was less of a rental housing burden compared to non-historic district census tracts: In historic districts, rental housing burden increased by 8.8 percent, compared to 18.1 percent citywide.

In Manhattan and Brooklyn, for the census tracts that didn’t overlap with historic districts, the rent burden increase was 9.9 percent (Manhattan) and 20.1 percent (Brooklyn), compared to census tracts that overlap with historic districts (a 4.3 and 10.0 percentage point increase, respectively).

The full report can be found here.

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