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
From Motown to "Notown"
Daniel Okrent, a writer for Time, recently issued the first installment in a yearlong series about Detroit, a series I’ll be tracking here and with my property class. Click here to read his article, "Detroit: The Death and Possible Life of a Great City." For all of the criticisms one can levy against it, Detroit is a fascinating city for land use study. Although many of Detroit’s problems result from poor economic decisions and political choices, namely a dangerous reliance on the auto industry, many other problems flow from poor land use.
In the absence of sound land use, Detroit barely resembles its once formidable self. At the height of its development in the twentieth century, Detroit counted amongst the wealthiest, and largest, cites in America. City leaders hired the nation’s best architects to build buildings of quality and scale designed to rival those of New York. Most of Detroit’s best examples are literally crumbling today. Once a vibrant urban place, huge sectors of Detroit have turned into wastelands, attributable largely to bad urban planning. The result? Outright decay. Many of city’s historic clubs, schools, and cultural institutions have either closed or are on the verge of doing do. Not a single chain grocery store remains within its city limits.
Committed citizens, however, are working hard to turn Detroit around. One common thread that emerges in Okrent’s article is that many of their solutions involve land use. One progressive thinker, Greg Willerer, has started to develop urban farms to expand the availability of fresh produce to city residents. One business leader, Dan Gilbert, is moving his business from the suburbs to the city. John J. George has been working hard for over two decades to save the historic district of Old Redford. Faye Nelson, leader of the Detroit River Front Conservancy, has restored three miles of river frontage and created public parks. Finally, in recognition of Detroit’s quickly shrinking population—nearly one-half the population that it had in 1950—some city leaders are even considering razing blighted areas of Detroit to restore the land to green space, to decrease its footprint, and lighten the burden on city services. Future posts will track the progress of these initiatives.
Will Cook, Charleston School of Law