This summer, I’m continuing my work as a NOLA Fellow at the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative (NONDC). NONDC builds affordable, high-quality single family homes in Central City, New Orleans, located uptown of the Central Business District between the I-10 expressway and Louisiana Avenue. Central City is just across Saint Charles Avenue from the stately homes of the Garden District, but its built forms are quite different. Much of the district is composed of historic working-class housing: mainly rental, single-family shotguns or doubles, rarely more than one story tall. Part of the neighborhood was granted status in 1982 as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.
NONDC has to date concentrated its efforts on new construction of housing, subsidizing moderate-income purchasers and construction costs through large federal grant programs such as HOPE VI and Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds. But the organization has recently purchased some properties where the existing structures are appropriate for re-use and renovation.
One of these rehab properties is 2223 LaSalle Street, a long-vacant house on a busy corridor just a few blocks from the public housing redevelopment of Harmony Oaks (which will be the subject of a future post). The house was partially renovated by a previous owner, but the roof is unfinished, most of the floors are currently plywood, and the porch will need to be completely reconstructed. Moreover, the house was originally a double, meaning one family lived on each side in shotgun configuration. The market for shotgun homeownership units is negligible, so the house will need to be converted to a single unit.
2223 LaSalle is plain and unremarkable: most of the ornamentation that would have lent it an obvious historic character has been lost over time. Nonetheless, it is probably more than 50 years old and located squarely in the Central City historic district, so I went through the exercise of investigating grant programs for preservation. My hope was that there would be some government incentives available to finance the renovation and sale of a historic home to a moderate-income family.
My investigation was illuminating, and ultimately disappointing. Most grants required Certificate of Appropriateness from the local Historic Districts Council, or a certification of “contributing” status from the National Parks Service, both uncertain processes that take time and can increase carrying costs to an untenable extent for a non-profit or low-income owner. The popular historic tax credit program has high initial costs for administration, and must result in income-producing use for 5 years—i.e., NONDC would need to rent, not sell the home after renovation, to be eligible. Finally, most methods of funding assistance require compliance with Secretary of the Interior Standards for Preservation, which are designed to be simple, but would still require significant divergence from NONDC’s current construction practices and standards.
Although the house has structural integrity, breaks in the roof have invited vegetation and mold which will need to be addressed during the renovations.
This small research project demonstrated the difficulty of promoting preservation, especially in a disinvested area like Central City. It’s a difficult balancing act for government agencies to regulate a level of historic consistency and design for preservation projects, while adequately incentivizing the significant increase in investment that it requires.
For a non-profit developer like NONDC, low profit margins and the structure of many of the financial incentives push such an extra investment beyond consideration. Most of the bids that we received for this project came in only slightly below the cost of new construction, even without allowing for the use of historically consistent materials or best practices in historic rehabilitation. For NONDC to enter into the practice of historic rehab would be a significant commitment to adjusting their development model.
In the case of 2223 LaSalle Street, we’ll never know if the building is “contributing” to the historic district, nor its particular history, nor how to preserve the structure to the fullest extent possible. There’s just not money or time to spend on such an investigation, given the poor fit of historic preservation incentives. However, some of the historic structure will be reused, and for an admirable purpose: a Central City family will get a new and quality-built home, at a price that is affordable to them.
In my next posts, I’ll explore the concept of preservation as it relates to this historic working class neighborhood; what does the private market have to say about Central City’s historic building stock, and what has been done with some of New Orlean’s earliest public housing buildings at the Magnolia / CJ Peete site?
Photos by Laura Manville
Laura Manville is a Master in City Planning candidate at MIT and a 2010 New Orleans Fellow at CoLab. For her fellowship, she is working with the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative as they develop homeownership units for the HOPE VI revitalization of the CJ Peete housing project. Her research is on the preservation of affordable and public housing.