Envisioning a Healthier Community

The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University (JCHS) makes a clear case for the need to study and plan for shifting housing needs in the United States. As a nation, we must prepare to address the population growth and specific housing needs of older persons. There must be a better match between available housing and the residential needs of older adults.

Whether rented or owned, housing is “affordable” when it meets the 30%-of-income affordability standard. Diminishing affordable housing supplies can be attributed to factors including, but not limited to, minimal incentives to create affordable units, lack of renter support and development strategies that promote gentrification.

For example, the federal government spends roughly $200 billion annually to help Americans buy or rent. Most funding, 70% in 2015, goes toward subsidizing people who are already homeowners. Meanwhile, as millions of Americans struggle to pay rent, only one in four who are eligible for housing assistance receive it. Expanding the supply of affordable rental housing requires strategies that more effectively utilize existing programs and subsidies and create policies that support this undertaking. Using the historic fabric, the nation’s extensive existing building stock, is a potential solution.

Adaptive reuse is an approach to historic preservation that repurposes buildings for a new use, while predominantly preserving the existing structure, and performing any necessary retrofits. In the United States, many buildings are underused, abandoned or functionally obsolete. Recycling existing facilities provides an immense potential to create affordable units appropriate for older adults.

In the State of the Nation’s Housing report, several recommendations were made for creating housing that accommodates the needs of older residents. These include housing that supports intergenerational living, shared housing alternatives, options for single adults, housing that promotes mobility, and affordable housing. As trends continue of adults aging outside of care facilities (more than 90% of the older adult population), the need for housing for single older adults with access to social services also rises. Plus, there is demand for a diverse and increasingly wide array of emergent shared housing alternatives. Older residential areas, commercial buildings, factories, schools, libraries and similar non-residential structures can meet these needs when adaptively reused.

These homes’ surroundings are on a human scale, rather than built to accommodate automobiles.

The historic building fabric provides many recommendations for its reuse for affordable housing. For instance, neighborhoods with older, smaller buildings and mixed-age blocks provide more affordable rental units than their newer counterparts. These homes are predominantly occupied by people of color, older adults and low-income individuals. In addition to this correlation between age and affordability, these potential sites often are located in areas where residents can easily walk to goods and services. Their surroundings are on a human scale rather than built to accommodate automobiles. Creating affordable housing here provides proximity to public transportation, food options, parks, education and employment.

This may lessen residents’ economic burdens and improve quality of life, minimizing auto-dependence and maximizing access to services within walking distance.

Many historic commercial, industrial and municipal buildings available for adaptive reuse also represent some of the best architecture in a community—benefiting from substantial investment at their initial construction. And some sites, such as schools or hotels, already have usable floor plans, are situated on large parcels of land, often located near the center of town, and have other amenities, such as off-street parking.

Adaptive reuse also makes financial sense. The financial benefits of historic preservation alone are well-documented—positively affecting job creation, property values, economic development and affordable housing. Adaptive reuse can lessen the financial impacts of the rising costs of new construction, the cost and scarcity of land and continuing supply chain issues. Compared with new construction, adaptive reuse can be 16% cheaper than new construction costs and take 18% less time to execute.

Also, federal and state tax credits incentivize preservation. Since 1976, Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits have helped create more than 135,000 low- and moderate-income housing units. Projects qualifying for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, the primary resource for preserving and expanding the affordable rental housing supply, can raise equity by syndicating both credits to outside investors.

Promoting a partnership between affordable housing and historic preservation encourages strategies that benefit communities’ environmental, economic and social well-being. However, such promotion requires a better empirical understanding of the process and outcomes as historic preservation has challenges. Unfortunately, transportation, economic development, gentrification and environmental conditions threaten historic places that could be used for affordable housing.

Preservation, when unchecked, is also often associated with gentrification and displacement as neighborhoods change and property values rise. Existing policies, such as the previously mentioned preservation tax credits at state and federal levels, are also subject to change in application or funding challenges. Fluctuating funds available to support tax credit programs may leave developers unsure of the merits of pursuing such incentives.

The relationship between where we live and well-being mandates reevaluating strategies for creating affordable housing for millions of cost-burdened Americans. As limited empirical evidence considers preservation’s value as a tool for creating housing for impoverished people, promoting this strategy requires more than ample anecdotal evidence supporting the practice. Success necessitates supporting research on preservation’s physical, emotional and economic impacts, allowing policymakers to promote adaptive reuse for older adults’ affordable housing.

Emily Bergeron, PhD, JD, is an associate professor in the Department of Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky's College of Design and an affiliate in the University’s Center for Equality and Social Justice.

Allison Gibson, PhD, MSW, is associate professor in the School of Social Work at Saint Louis University and the Director of Research and Training at the Aging and Memory Clinic.

Dr. Bergeron is in Lexington and Dr. Gibson is in St. Louis.

Photo caption: Wolfe County High School in Campton, KY, was built in 1942 and in 2015 converted into affordable apartments for older adults. The building also houses the Wolfe County Community Center. 

Photo credit: Courtesy of AU Associates, Inc.