Re: [Shawtalk] Historic Code
I live in the Shaw neighborhood in Saint Louis, and I subscribe to the area’s email listserv. Last week, a subject of much debate was the Shaw Neighborhood Local Historic District’s long list of Use, Rehabilitation and New Construction Standards, which describes which architectural details, roof shapes, roof materials, etc., that residents are allowed to use.
When a person walks through a neighborhood like Shaw that features aesthetic continuity, he sees only part of the story; historic codes like those in the Shaw neighborhood entail many unseen costs and negative unintended consequences, which I will attempt to enumerate in this post. For these reasons, historic building codes discourage the practical use of existing structures — the very thing they are supposed to encourage.
- Historic codes violate private property rights.
They restrict individuals from altering, adding to, or demolishing the buildings that they own. By purchasing an older property, an individual assumes the risk that it could lose value in the future. Property owners have an incentive to maintain their investment, because otherwise the value of the property will decline.
- Mandating aesthetics should not be the role of government.
Ensuring that a building is structurally sound is one thing, as David Stokes has written previously, but mandating how a building looks aesthetically is another. In my opinion, individuals should be free to enter into voluntary agreements of this nature, but only as a private matter (e.g., neighborhood covenants). I disagree that it should be the role of the government to ensure that the block “works visually,” as one person writes on Shawtalk:
There is something to be said for architectural cognizance-for having the entire block look so different that it no longer works visually. Sort of like wearing a plaid shirt with flowered pants and a striped jacket-one can do it but it looks silly.
Furthermore, mandating and regulating this conformity is largely redundant, because the majority will not choose to make egregious violations of social convention, such as paint their houses hot pink. As an analogous example, there is no law against cutting in line, but people choose to wait their turn out of social convention. People choose to wear jeans because many other people also wear them. Businessmen and politicians wear dark suits because their peers and colleagues do.
- Historic codes increase the cost of the materials required to rehabilitate a house.
A homeowner has to search for windows, doors, and millwork that fit the conditions of the code. There can also be additional costs for compliance, such as, say, the need to build a different fence because the one you have is an inch too short. As a negative consequence of this increase in cost, homeowners have less of a marginal incentive to repair their property.
Tangentially, supporters of historic credits argue that the regulations benefit the local economy, because the code-appropriate items are often made regionally or locally. This argument fails because it ignores the unseen. The resources that are devoted to making code-approved materials could be put toward other uses. It’s possible that local manufacturers do not possess a comparative advantage in manufacturing windows and doors, and that they could manufacture other products more efficiently.
- Historic codes discourages people from making technological improvements to their home, such as upgrading the energy efficiency.
How new can something be and still be considered historic? Is modern plumbing historic? Is central air historic? Is an Internet hookup historic?
- Housing codes are passed under the guise of protecting quality, but homeowners have other avenues of redress.
Another commenter observes:
It also plays into safety issues as some people would do very flimsy and faulty work in an effort to sell the house without regard for how well the job was done.
This is one reason that the judicial system exists. If a carpenter does flimsy and faulty work, the homeowner can take him to court. Furthermore, if a carpenter does flimsy and faulty work, the homeowner would discourage his friends and neighbors from hiring him. The carpenter would lose business as a consequence.
- Historic codes like Shaw’s favor home ownership over renting; cementing such preferences through policy also should not be the role of government.
The Shaw Neighborhood Historic District Rehabilitation and New Construction Standards explicitly state the following:
it is the intent of this ordinance to decrease the density of housing units within the neighborhood without demolishing buildings. Whenever feasible, buildings should remain with the same amount or less living units as the building was originally designed.[…] Buildings should not be converted from single-family to multi-family. Two-family structures should not be converted to more than two units. Four family buildings should not be converted to more than six units with no units having less than six hundred net rentable square feet.
First, this code prohibits a person from subdividing her property. This means that she cannot lease out her property and receive rental income. Second, this policy restricts renters and people of lower income from moving into the neighborhood.
Through this policy, the government favors home ownership over renting. Owning a home is a significant investment that isn’t suitable for all individuals; by renting, many people who can’t afford the investment commitment and risk of a home can live within their means.