“An Investment and a Home”: How Preservationists Embraced New Roles As Landlords to Battle the Urban Housing Crisis

This piece by Brian Whetstone is the first entrant into the Fifth Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We invited graduate students to “write about a moment in urban history when individuals, groups, or cities attempted to unite or to try a new idea,” and in this essay Whetstone examines the consequences of preservationists’ embrace of the private housing market.

Paula Taylor was fed up with absentee landlords. A resident of Forest Park Heights, a large neighborhood of elegant Victorian homes in Springfield, Massachusetts, and leading member of the neighborhood civic association, Paula worked tirelessly to designate a portion of her neighborhood as a local historic district in 1973. But by 1978, Paula could point to a variety of deteriorating multi-family homes throughout Forest Park Heights as evidence of the abuses perpetuated by absentee landlords—landlords who did not live in or near the property they leased. “It was immoral,” Paula remembered, “allowing people to live in those conditions and collecting these gigantic, subsidized rents. It was a travesty.” To solve this “travesty,” Paula became a landlord in 1978, purchasing a two-family house two doors away from her own home, which she began renting to tenants.[1]

Paula’s solution to the problems she observed with rental housing in her neighborhood reflected a transformative development underway in the 1970s and 1980s as community preservationists embraced new roles as landlords to battle the urban housing crisis—a nationwide shortage of affordable, safe, and sanitary rental housing that peaked in the late 1970s. Scholars, social scientists, and tenant activists of the 1970s broadly understood this “crisis” as the cumulative impact of housing abandonment, arson, a dearth of affordable housing, the political villainization of public housing tenants, and abusive absentee landlords.[2] Community preservationists, who operated at the grassroots and approached preservation as an avocation, found themselves especially vexed by the loss of historic housing stock to the wrecking ball. Preservationists united around a common analysis that positioned individual landlords as both the problem and solution to this crisis: if preservationists simply replaced abusive, absentee landlords and took better care of their properties and their tenants, they could diminish the mounting political and infrastructural costs of the urban housing crisis.

Policymakers looked to abandoned housing, like the derelict rowhouses pictured here in Boston’s South End, as highly visible symptoms of the urban housing crisis. “Boarded-Up Brick Building in Boston’s South End” (ca. 1973), Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

In boiling their assessment of the urban housing crisis down to landlords, these preservationists shifted the terms of public debate away from more structural or societal solutions for providing safe, affordable housing, and into the realm of individual behavior. Policymakers looking to absolve the state of responsibility for solving urban problems received these arguments with open arms, rewarding preservation-minded property owners with new development tools like tax incentives that maximized their ability to profit as landlords.

When historians narrate the political shift to conservatism, market-oriented policies, or neoliberalism, in the late twentieth century, rarely do they consider community preservationists as important political actors.[3] But in uniting around their shared interests as landlords, these preservationists were instrumental in this shift in American politics. For community preservationists, embracing roles as landlords was a novel move.[4] It was also incredibly successful. As Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of the widely acclaimed Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation, argued: “this is the time for us to tell the government, Spend [sic] your community development dollars not on yourselves but on us; we can get the job done at lower cost and faster.”[5] These arguments convinced policymakers that landlords were better able to take care of urban problems than the state, indicated by the creation of preservation tax incentives in 1976 to subsidize preservationist-landlords in their real estate ventures.

By embracing, promoting, and profiting from their new roles as landlords, community preservationists justified an over-reliance on the private market to alleviate social, political, and spatial issues facing cities in the 1970s and 1980s. In doing so, preservationists foreclosed on more expansive solutions to the urban housing crisis that involved state and collective action to protect housing as a basic human right instead of an instrument to generate capital. Ultimately, preservationists’ transformation into landlords is important to understand both American political culture in the late-twentieth century and the contemporary preservation movement—a movement that largely has yet to reckon with those consequences.

Abandoned and derelict housing ranked as perhaps the most alarming manifestation of the urban housing crisis to city officials across the country, as a “visual symbol of the urban ills of our society” and the mounting physical tolls of the urban crisis on municipal infrastructure.[6] In Springfield, Massachusetts, a small city hard hit by this crisis, the local planning department warned that the city was “tottering on the brink” of a housing disaster; fourteen percent of the city’s housing stock was considered “substandard.”[7] Abandonment exacerbated this crisis further by creating a shortage of rental housing, making it difficult for low-income renters to secure affordable housing. Arise for Social Justice, a welfare rights organization founded in the mid-1980s, explained that with “poorer white, black, and Hispanic residents” unable to pay rising rents, “many landlords abandoned their buildings and their tenants, finding it more economically feasible to desert their buildings than to operate them,” a gambit that fueled abandonment and rising rents.[8] If tenants were lucky enough to find affordable rental housing, many faced exploitative and abusive tactics from absentee landlords or building managers.[9]

The Springfield Institution for Savings (SIS) positioned its own preservationist project, Armoury Commons, as an enlightened intervention into the city’s urban housing crisis and “early Valentine” for all of Springfield to enjoy.
“Housing and Community Development Act of 1977: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development of the Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs” (1977), U.S. Government Printing Office.

As policymakers worried state action alone would be ineffective to address this crisis, preservationists intervened in these debates by contrasting their status as “owner-occupant” landlords with abusive, absentee landlords. Owner-occupant landlords lived in or near the properties they rented while absentee landlords “see the rent coming in and they do the least expensive repairs,” living in some distant locale.[10] But like absentee landlords, preservationists still viewed housing as a commodity through which they could profit as they discovered their enjoyment at “having tenants make their monthly mortgage payments for them.”[11] Others found that collecting rent “will enable you to succeed in your risky restoration.”[12] Springfield homeowner Daniel Simmons found tenants to provide a reliable source of income as he “bumped the rent up a little bit each year” until “three or four years down the road the tenants were subsidizing me…the thing really ended up being quite a cash cow.”[13]

Even though preservationists and absentee landlords both viewed their properties as a commodity, preservationists provided moral assurances that they valued their properties as not merely a financial instrument, but a “home” that fulfilled the necessary physical, social, and psychological needs of preservationists and their tenants. Absentee landlords “don’t care like we care,” while preservationist owner-occupants distinguished their properties as “an investment and a home.”[14] Preservationists also framed their new roles as landlords as a civic duty undertaken in the interest of the city’s overall wellbeing, arguing to municipal officials that they were “more stable,” and managed rental properties better than their abusive counterparts, ultimately contributing back to the city’s cash-strapped tax base and making the city a safer place to live by directly screening and selecting only the most deserving tenants.[15]

As community preservationists embraced renting and leasing property, so too did their professional counterparts. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Endowment for the Arts endorsed preservationist-landlords in 1977, sponsoring a conference on “Tenants and Landlords” in Savannah, Georgia. For four days participants attended workshops on managing low-income tenants, financing the preservation of apartment buildings, and working with municipal housing authorities.[16] The conference reflected preservationists’ analysis of the urban housing crisis as rooted in the individual behaviors of landlords, not systemic or structural problems. To these preservationists the problem and solution were clear: “unless the absentee landlord is removed” and replaced with a more sympathetic preservationist, the urban housing crisis would continue unabated.[17]

The front page of the Savannah Neighborhood Action Conference on Tenants and Landlords, a National Trust for Historic Preservation and National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored conference in 1977.
Source: Partners for Livable Communities Collection, George Mason University Special Collections, Fairfax, VA.

Like their local and state counterparts, federal policymakers welcomed these arguments with open arms, empowering preservationist-landlords by creating new preservation tax incentives. Congress first created tax incentives in revisions to the federal tax code with the Tax Reform Act (TRA) of 1976. As outlined in that legislation, owners of certified historic buildings—properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) or located in a NRHP- or locally-designated historic district—were eligible to amortize the costs of a Department of the Interior-certified rehabilitation over a 60-month period or could choose an accelerated depreciation.[18]

These new tax incentives alleviated the burden on the state to provide housing while underwriting the profits of preservationist-landlords. While preservation tax incentives applied to all “revenue-generating properties,” a prerequisite that nominally included commercial structures, the incentives functioned as a rental housing development program that subsidized landlords.[19] In 1979 the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service estimated that 54 percent of all certified rehabilitations nationwide provided rental housing.[20] In midwestern and northeastern states that saw federal funding shift to the Sunbelt through Nixon’s New Federalism, the use of preservation tax incentives for housing rose as city administrators grasped at whatever federal funding streams they could find.[21] In fact, by 1980 Massachusetts led the nation both in the number of certified projects and the amount of federal dollars received, with 64 percent of certified rehabilitation projects providing rental housing.[22]

The use of federal preservation tax incentives rose steadily throughout the 1970s and 1980s as federal funding for urban housing shifted to the Sunbelt. “Federal Tax Law and Historic Preservation: A Report to the President and the Congress, 1983” Advisory Council on Historic Preservation,

By institutionalizing the experimental initiatives of preservationist-landlords, preservation tax incentives conformed to and accelerated a market turn in American politics. When elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan pushed a conservative political and economic agenda that alleviated tax burdens for some of the wealthiest Americans while slashing federal housing and welfare provisions.[23] What remained unscathed in this agenda were preservation tax incentives. In 1981 Reagan expanded preservation tax incentives to include a 25 percent credit for certified historic structures. Reagan defended this expansion, explaining that tax incentives for “the preservation of our older buildings” made “economic good sense.”[24]

That Reagan, a champion of regressive political policies, came to the defense of preservation tax incentives should give preservationists pause. Yet preservation tax incentives remain a popular tool among preservationists, who vaunt them as a “remarkable success story” for their economic benefits to local economies and their ability to advance supposedly equitable urban redevelopment strategies.[25] But the story I have narrated here suggests a more complicated genealogy for tax incentives, one in which preservationists did not play nonideological roles as benevolent urban developers, but as political agents in the rightward turn in American politics.

By uncritically accepting tax credits as a tool for positive urban redevelopment, preservationists continue to evade meaningful reckoning with these consequences of tax credits on American political culture and within their movement. A substantive reckoning would involve acknowledging how preservation tax credits disproportionately affect low-income and nonwhite tenants’ ability to find stable and secure housing and would call for instead utilizing tax incentives to increase affordable housing options. Some preservationists have already accepted this reality. Pairing preservation tax credits with low-income housing tax credits—first introduced in 1986—these preservationists created new affordable housing units or preserved existing subsidized housing. Breaking Ground, a permanent supportive housing provider, successfully expanded low-income housing opportunities by combining preservation and low-income tax credits to rehabilitate the Times Square Hotel into affordable housing units in New York in 1991.[26]

But a truly radical or transformative reckoning will involve more than merely including low-income tenants in preservation agendas; it requires the complete rejection of a framework reliant on the goodwill of individual landlords to provide affordable and sanitary housing. By simply bringing the private housing market into low-income tenants’ reach, preservationists ignore the predatory and fundamentally racialized nature of that market. Instead of promoting the responsible—and financially lucrative—ownership of property, preservationists must reorient their movement’s philosophy and values to prioritize housing as a basic human right. As Springfield tenants articulated in 1980 amid an ongoing rent strike initiated against a preservationist-landlord, “what we’re protesting goes beyond numerical justification” to the “impossible dream” of a “stable community.”[27] Preservationists would do well to heed these demands. Rejecting the “numerical justification” of renting and leasing property reinforced by tax credits and embracing housing’s importance in fostering the “impossible dream” of a mutually supportive community would expand their movement’s capacity to nurture the collective welfare of our cities and communities.

Brian Whetstone is a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose research focuses on the intersection between historic preservation, real estate, and the urban crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. His dissertation project examines preservation organizations in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, and throughout the state of Massachusetts to explore how preservationists prioritized private property ownership as a method of community development to battle urban decline. Brian also holds a certificate in public history with a concentration in historic preservation. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Brian graduated with a BA in History from Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska, in 2018. Brian has worked with the National Park Service’s Northeast Regional Office to commemorate the centennial of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and with Restoration Exchange Omaha to promote historic preservation in the Omaha metro area. Most recently, Brian is working with UMass Amherst professor Dr. Marla Miller on an NPS Underrepresented Communities Grant-funded National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Porter Phelps Huntington Foundation in Hadley, Massachusetts. Brian also serves as co-chair of the National Council of Public History’s New Professional and Student Committee.

Featured image (at top): By embracing new roles as landlords over a wide range of restored housing stock like the homes and apartments pictured here, preservationists argued that they were best equipped to battle the urban housing crisis. Source: “Living in Springfield: Come and Join Us!” promotional booklet, circa 1980, Mayor Theodore Dimauiro collection, Lyman and Merrie Wood Springfield History Library and Archives, Springfield, MA.

[1] To protect the identities and privacy of oral history interviewees, I have replaced real names with pseudonyms. Paula Taylor, oral history interview with Brian Whetstone, October 28, 2020, interview in possession of the author.

[2] For contemporary characterizations of this crisis see Stephen Burghardt, ed., Tenants and the Urban Housing Crisis (Dexter, MI: The New Press, 1972); “Housing Abandonment: A National Problem Needing New Approaches” (Washington, DC: United States General Accounting Office, 1978).

[3] For a standard account of the rightward or market turn in the late twentieth century see Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020); for a recent analysis that consider the importance of local actors in this turn see Benjamin Holtzman, The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[4] Landlords have long been a part of American urban life. See Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan For Rent, 1785-1850 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); Jared N. Day, Urban Castles: Tenement Housing and Landlord Activism in New York City, 1890-1943 (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999).

[5] National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation: Toward an Ethic in the 1980s (Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1979), 84.

[6] “Housing Abandonment: A National Problem Needing New Approaches,” 2; Dylan Gottlieb, “Hoboken Is Burning: Yuppies, Arson, and Displacement in the Postindustrial City,” Journal of American History 106, no. 2 (September 2019): 390–416.

[7] “The Status of the Housing Inventory, 1975-1983,” (Springfield, MA: Springfield Planning Department, 1983), report, mayor Theodore Dimauro collection, Lyman and Merrie Wood Springfield Museum of History (hereafter LMWLA), Springfield, MA.

[8] Arise for Social Justice, research report on Springfield’s housing crisis, circa 1981, Arise for Social Justice records, Sophia Smith collection, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, MA.

[9] Leanne Bisby, oral history interview with Brian Whetstone, April 12, 2021, interview in possession of the author.

[10] Paula Taylor, oral history interview with Brian Whetstone.

[11] Richard J. Roddewig and Michael S. Young, “Neighborhood Revitalization and the Historic Preservation Incentives of the Tax Reform Act of 1976: Lessons from the Bottom Line of a Chicago Red Brick Three-Flat,” The Urban Lawyer 11, no. 1 (Winter 1979): 50.

[12] Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr., Historic Preservation in Inner City Areas: A Manual of Practice (Pittsburgh, PA: The Allegheny Press, 1971), 51.

[13] Daniel Simmons, oral history interview with Brian Whetstone, October 8, 2020, interview in possession of the author.

[14] Julie Mason, oral history interview with Brian Whetstone, October 23, 2020, interview in possession of the author.

[15] Bill McIntosh, oral history interview with Brian Whetstone, October 24, 2020, interview in possession of the author.

[16] “Savannah Neighborhood Action Conference: Tenants and Landlords,” program, 1977, Partners for Livable Communities Collection, George Mason University Special Collections, Fairfax, VA.

[17] “Savannah Landmark Rehabilitation Project, Inc.,” brochure, 1974, Partners for Livable Communities Collection, George Mason University Special Collections, Fairfax, VA.

[18] Stephanie Ryberg-Webster, ” Urban Policy in Disguise: A History of the Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit,” Journal of Planning History 14, no. 3 (September 2014), 208; Wade R. Ragas and Ivan J. Miestchovich, Jr., “Historic Preservation and the 1976 Tax Reform Act,” The Appraisal Journal (January 1978), 44-51; The historic preservation provisions of the TRA were included in section 2124, see Tax Reform Act of 1976, Public Law 94-455, 94th Cong., (October 4, 1976), 397-401.

[19] “Report to the President and the Congress of the United States” (Washington, DC: Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, 1978), 7; “Federal Tax Law and Historic Preservation: A Report to the President and the Congress, 1983” (Washington, DC: Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, 1983).

[20] “Federal Tax Provisions to Encourage Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings: An Assessment of Their Effect” (Washington, DC: Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, August 1979), 43.

[21] R. Allen Hays, The Federal Government and Urban Housing, 3rd ed. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2012), 199; Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[22] “Expiring Historic Tax Provisions: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures of the Committee of Ways and Means” (1980), 31; “Federal Tax Provisions to Encourage Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings: An Assessment of Their Effect,” 79.

[23] Doug Rossinow, The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2015), 33.

[24] Ronald Reagan, President Reagan’s Taped Message, for the National Conference of Revitalization of America’s Towns,” September 14, 1984, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kJAIopuPyI, accessed June 21, 2021.

[25] Stephanie K. Meeks and Kevin C. Murphy, The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America’s Cities (Washington, D.C.: Island Press and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2016), 108-114; for more recent statistics and similar claims about the value of the preservation tax credit, see “Federal Tax Credits for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings: Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2020,” (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2020), https://www.nps.gov/tps/tax-incentives/taxdocs/tax-incentives-2020annual.pdf.

[26] Roseanne Hagerty, “Keeping Us Honest: What Our Buildings Tell Us About the Health of Our Communities,” in Max Page and Marla R. Miller, eds., Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation in the United States (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 99; Mittie Olion Chandler, “Historic Designation and the Preservation of Public Housing,” in The Black Urban Community: From Dusk Till Dawn (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 57–62.

[27] Carolyn Robbins, “Rent Increase Spurs Protest By Tenants,” Springfield Union, January 16, 1980.

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