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Localities Can Advance Racial Equity through Historic Preservation

This post was originally published on Urban Wire, the blog of the Urban Institute

New research shows housing affordability has hit a historic low and the racial homeownership gap has widened. Contributing to these trends are surging home prices and soaring mortgage rates, among other factors—both present and historic—that have created barriers for residents, especially residents of color.

Historic preservation—the practice of protecting and conserving the built environment, landscape, and places of historic significance—can sometimes reinforce these barriers. Policies can include architecture style guides, landmark designations, tax credits, and other activities aimed at maintaining the cultural value of a space.

But zoning restrictions tied to historic districting may prevent the development of multifamily homes and apartment buildings, which can make it difficult for residents with lower incomes and families to continue living in a neighborhood. Approved designations may also disproportionately highlight white, wealthy neighborhoods or cause displacement, as residents may struggle with renovation costs that emerge from a historic district designation.

A new federal initiative offers an opportunity for change. In January 2022, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) released their Equity Action Plan to enhance and sustain the diversity of historic preservation across the United States. The ACHP sets standards for historic preservation and provides technical assistance to state and municipal governments, making this plan a significant step toward empowering local government to similarly advance equity in their own policies and practices.

Building off the ACHP’s work, localities can adapt their historic preservation policies to empower communities of color and low-income communities, support small local businesses, and increase access to safe, affordable housing. Here are three ways local governments can drive racial equity without causing displacement through historic preservation efforts.

  1. Engage residents of color in the development and implementation of local equity frameworks.
    In 2021, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) launched an equity framework to advance racial equity, diversity, and inclusion in the city’s landmark designation processes. Because landmark sites are often disproportionately in white, affluent New York City neighborhoods, the LPC is prioritizing landmark designations that celebrate the city’s socioeconomic and racial diversity. To tackle these inequities, the LPC plans to strengthen its engagement with community members, integrating channels for oral-history sharing and community interviews to help inform landmark designations. For instance, the LPC’s historic designation in Tin Pan Alley demonstrates how these tools have helped preserve critical aspects of Black culture and music.  
    Since the equity framework launched, the LPC has worked with community organizations to garner support for historic designation and learn about community needs. Organizations such as Save Harlem Now!, the West Harlem Community Preservation Organization, and Community Board 10 have worked with the LPC to promote the creation of the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District in Harlem, a historically Black neighborhood in Manhattan. The historic district is named after the adjoining park that honors Black infantryman Dorrance Brooks and is one of many efforts to preserve Harlem’s built heritage.
  2. Use tools that promote historic preservation while preventing local business displacement.
    Missoula, Montana, redesigned its downtown master plan in 2018 to incorporate the history of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, whose ancestral homeland encompasses Missoula. Local leaders created a Heritage Interpretive Plan (PDF) in partnership with the tribe’s Séliš-Qlispé Culture Committee, local museums, community organizations, and the University of Montana to develop interpretive signs and public art. The committee similarly organizes cultural events, maintains historic archives, and conducts public education outreach.

    Missoula also engaged in an asset-mapping process, whereby culturally significant businesses, organizations, and institutions across the city are identified and monitored if deemed to be at risk of displacement. Because of the varied pressures small businesses face in remaining open, particularly businesses of color, asset mapping can help local governments determine where to target support.

    As a result, the city launched their Legacy Business Program, managed by the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission, which identifies local businesses as being significant to the community if they’ve been operating for 100 or more years. This program provided benefits to small businesses in addition to securing their historic designation, such as facilitating partnerships, educational programming, and opportunities for branding and marketing. For historic communities of color, these programs can help both preserve local culture and mitigate displacement.
  3. Financially support community-led projects working to preserve and revitalize historic neighborhoods of color.
    In the 1970s, Orange Mound in Memphis, Tennessee, had the second-most-concentrated population of Black people in the United States. In recent years, Orange Mound has suffered from large-scale disinvestment: property values in Orange Mound have plummeted by 30 percent between 2009 and 2019, and the neighborhood is labeled as “hazardous” on maps that lenders use when strategizing their investments. Structural disparities persist, as Black residents in Memphis are far more likely to experience poverty than their white neighbors, and many Orange Mound residents are unable to access affordable, healthy food because nearby grocery stores have closed.

    To combat these inequities, local artists Victoria Jones and James Dukes are transforming an abandoned United Equipment feed mill into a space to meet the Black community’s needs. Now coined the Orange Mound Tower, this multiuse facility will weave together space for arts promotion, affordable housing, and food security. The purchase of the abandoned feed mill was an intentional decision to protect the neighborhood’s identity, as the building was positioned to become a craft brewery.

    Jones and Dukes anticipate most of Orange Mound Tower’s costs will be funded by philanthropic and governmental commitments. The city’s Division of Housing and Community Development has recently prioritized redevelopment activities, such as restoring a vacant high school building into a community hub, demonstrating their commitment to preserving the city’s Black history.

When done thoughtfully, historic preservation can bring communities significant economic benefits. Though historic preservation hasn’t always led to equitable community outcomes, the examples above underscore how local government can advance racial equity by adapting their existing policies.