Preserving and protecting home ownership and the affordable housing in the United States remains a serious concern despite numerous federal programs intended to encourage home ownership and to provide affordable housing to low-income individuals and families. Often times, low-income people live in older, run-down neighborhoods in urban areas. There is a constant threat that developers will purchase properties in these areas in order to demolish or renovate existing structures and redevelop the area (this process is often referred to as "gentrification").
One of the consequences of gentrification is the displacement of low-income residents. In those instances where low-income residents own their own homes, they stand to benefit from rising property values. For those residents who do not own their own homes, displacement can be disruptive and, in high cost areas such as the District of Columbia, finding affordable replacement housing can be difficult.
Many older neighborhoods and their residents could benefit from additional regulatory protections. In some cases, neighborhoods may qualify for the protections provided by a local historic district statute or ordinance. Historic districts, which originated in Charleston, South Carolina in 1931, are used frequently throughout the country to protect historic neighborhoods. The establishment of an historic district in an area tends to contribute to the revitalization of the area. Middle and high-income people often move into revitalized buildings in the area. The revitalization and in-migration contribute to rising property values and rising rents, which, in turn, contribute to displacement of lower income residents.
Historic districts generally require that building owners submit an application to a preservation commission for permission to construct new buildings or to demolish, alter or construct additions to existing buildings. Typically, the standards under historic district legislation are strict and may require expensive upkeep of properties. In low-income neighborhoods, the added costs imposed by such a regulatory burden may make it more difficult for families to afford to remain in their neighborhoods.
Over the past twenty years, conservation districts have emerged as an alternative means of protecting the character of neighborhoods, including the historic elements of neighborhoods. Cities such as Phoenix, Arizona and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania have adopted legislation which permits the creation of conservation districts in order to increase or preserve the supply of affordable housing and revitalize neighborhoods. Currently, the City of Washington, D.C. has historic preservation legislation, but does not have conservation districts. Given the historic nature of Washington as the nation’s capital, the large low-income population in the City, and the considerable amount of development (particularly gentrification) that has occurred in Washington over the past 25 years and is continuing to occur, it is of vital importance to protect structures that contribute to the City’s history, as well as to maintain affordability for low-income individuals and families.
This paper will examine (i) the Phoenix, Arizona and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania conservation district legislation as a possible model for the use of conservation districts to preserve affordable housing in Washington and (ii) focus on the possible use of a conservation district in the Northeast neighborhood of Deanwood, as an alternative to an historic district, as a means to protect historic structures and affordable housing.
Bissinger, Kelly B., "Conservation Districts: A Solution for the Deanwood Neighborhood?" (2007). Georgetown Law Historic Preservation Papers Series. 23.