The case against Local Historic Districts
Brookline currently has eight Local Historic Districts. Most modifications to the exterior of buildings in these LHDs require review by the Town and approval from the Preservation Committee to “ensure that they are appropriate to the historic character of the LHD.” The limitations are robust.
Residents in few neighborhoods, including mine, are pushing to create more LHDs. I believe this is a mistake. For your consideration:
1) An LHD means giving away some of our current property rights and making our lives harder when we want to update the exterior of our houses. To make exterior changes, such as windows, siding, garage, doors, gutters, etc., we would need to receive permission from the preservation committee first. It would add time and cost. We would need to prepare drawings and make application, and change our plans based on what that committee wants. What they approve can also change from year to year, making it even harder to plan.
2) These restrictions are bad for the environment too. For example, anyone with old single-pane windows would be prohibited from replacing them. The single-pane windows are not well insulated and require the homes to expend significantly more energy for heating and cooling than modern energy-efficient windows.
Those old windows are also thick with lead paint, a known hazard to children. Polluting the environment and poisoning children are indeed historic elements of the 20th century, but I think not worth preserving.
When developers buy homes for demolition, they are generally not buying well maintained homes. They typically buy homes with years, sometimes decades, of deferred maintenance, with asbestos, lead paint, rotted wood, crumbling foundations, ancient knob and tube wiring, and who knows what else.
3) A prominent part of the argument for historic districts is that the new style houses are ugly. This doesn’t align with what I observe. Clearly people find these homes attractive or they wouldn’t be purchased at a premium by home buyers. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Will we feel a twinge of sadness when an old house is demolished? Inevitably, yes. But it will also enable new beautiful buildings to be born.
Even if we did find some unattractive, we would never dream of enacting a law against someone for painting their house a color we don’t like, or planting flowers we find hideous, so why make a law against aluminum clad mansard style roofs?
Speaking of appearances, with their exterior shells of modern, durable materials, new houses will not suffer from the ubiquitous rotting wood and chipping paint that plague our older housing stock.
4) Another argument being made is that these new construction houses unduly impose on their neighbors. But, in fact, the existing zoning regulation takes care of this already. There are strict requirements that, among other things, limit the height, require setbacks from the front, side, and rear lot lines, and limits the square footage of the building relative to the lot size.
5) An important consideration for me is that we face an acute housing shortage. The young generation is struggling. A couple weeks ago one of my clients had to compete against 17 offers on one home! As a result, real people are deferring their dreams. The cost of housing has skyrocketed, outpacing inflation and incomes, and the cost to our society is yet to be fully understood. Born of that frustration, a movement has been growing that identifies equity issues with our current and historical housing policies. As a local example, Brookline For Everyone. I would suggest we find ways to build more housing, not less.
6) And finally, I would also point out the scenario of a house being demolished is actually quite rare in Brookline. Looking through recent tax records, of the approximately 5785 houses (single family, two family, or three family) in all of Brookline, only 13 were built in 2018, 16 in 2017, and 18 in 2016. Those were mostly in Chestnut Hill - not this northern part of Brookline - and were not demolitions.
BUT, even if those had all been demolitions, at this pace it would take over 361 years to replace the housing stock. I wouldn’t worry… by then even these new houses will be “historic” :-)
Alternatives Okay, so what’s a better way if we want to preserve older houses? Here are some ideas:
- When the time comes, choose to sell your own home to an owner occupant instead of a developer. You may exercise that choice, and even pledge to do that to your neighbors .
- If you feel strongly about preserving a particular house that comes on the market for sale, and if you have the means, you may purchase and restore it. Or, if enough neighbors pledged their financial support, the group could form a fund that would make a standing offer to match any bona fide offer from a developer, purchase the home, and then restore it ourselves. Perhaps then renting it out or selling it as affordable housing.
- Support an expanded allowed use of Accessory Dwelling Units. ADU’s are allowed now in limited circumstances. Making “in-law apartments” legal in more cases would accomplish two goals: 1) make it easier for an owner occupant to stay in their home instead of selling and downsizing. 2) creates instant, quality affordable housing.
As always, I appreciate hearing your perspective.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
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AVI KAUFMAN is a top broker who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and works there and surrounding communities, assisting buyers and sellers of residential property. He is building a unique practice dedicated to serving the best interest of his clients - see how he's different.