Sunday, October 11, 2009

Affordable Housing in Historic Cities

The “living city” as Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. once described Charleston, South Carolina, stands on the verge of losing what remains of its historic diversity of use and richness of place.  Evidence suggests that many downtown neighborhoods that once housed families with children now seem desolate at night because of absentee ownership.  Although Charleston does better than most cities, affordable housing in many sectors of its historic peninsula has all but disappeared.  Long-time residents, seeking better value, frequently shop and dine in nearby towns and suburbs.  Friends who do gather downtown to socialize generally live elsewhere because housing prices long ago outpaced wages.  The apparent urban vibrancy one sees at night draws largely from the tourist trade.


One hears the dilemma described over and over again:  “No one lives here anymore.”  Historic cities feel this problem acutely.  Even as Charleston leads the nation in historic preservation law creation, application of this law results in half-hearted successes, due in part to conflicting zoning laws that work against the preservation goals and the principles of good urbanism.  One of the issues my property class will examine next semester is the problem of affordable housing in historic districts.  We will start by defining affordable housing, learning the basics of historic preservation law, studying applicable local zoning laws, attending planning commission meetings in small groups, and meeting with the Lowcountry Housing Trust to identify solutions.  As the city surrounding our law school continues to emphasize hotels and tourism over the development of other industries in the historic urban core, affordable housing pressures will rise.  This issue is especially relevant in a city where lawyer salaries have not keep pace with housing prices, either.


Will Cook, Charleston School of Law

| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Affordable Housing in Historic Cities:


Professor Cook,
Please let me know if I can help with providing information from the City's Zoning Ordinance pertaining to Affordable Housing. I may take a slightly different view from the assertion "application of this [preservation] law results in half-hearted successes, due in part to conflicting zoning laws that work against the preservation goals and the principles of good urbanism." While parts of the zoning ordinance do work against the principles of urbanism those parts are meant to apply in contexts other than the urban context such as a suburban context. The context of Charleston's Historic District is urban and the preservation laws are appropriately applied by staff in an extraordinarily effective way, in terms of preservation. Of course, I may be biased because I work with those staff people...However

I would take the position that affordable housing has all but disappeared from Historic districts not because of conflicting zoning laws, but simply by virtue of a neighborhood's historically significant status. This status contributes to inflated property values, elevated NIMBY attitudes and protectionist policies advocated for by neighborhood associations and affluent property owners.

It is an interesting dilemma. The challenge to your students might be to consider the law's appropriate place in encouraging affordable housing (a.k.a. a diverse housing stock) within a historic district and where the "free market" is still held to be the corner stone of economic progress. Are there Constitutional challenges to forcing affordable housing requirements on a development? Is it an equal protection issue or a substantive due process issue? If we can't require affordable housing are incentives enough? Are the principles of good urbanism really aligned with affordable housing needs?

Posted by: Chris Inglese | Oct 12, 2009 7:37:28 AM