In housing circles, one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation. And many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it…
In the meantime, we’re stuck with a lot of old housing that, to put it bluntly, just kind of sucks. A stately Victorian manor in the Berkshires is one thing. But if you live in a Boston triple-decker, a kit-built San Jose bungalow, or a Chicago greystone, your home is the cheap housing of generations past. These structures were built to last a half century—at most, with diligent maintenance—at which point the developers understood they would require substantial rehabilitation. Generally speaking, however, the maintenance hasn’t been diligent, the rehabilitation isn’t forthcoming, and any form of redevelopment is illegal thanks to overzealous zoning.
You might think uneven floors or steep stairwells have “character.” You’ll get no argument here. But more often than not, old housing is simply less safe…
The fact is that those much-lamented cookie-cutter five-over-one apartment buildings cropping up across the U.S. solve the problems of old housing and then some. Modern building codes require sprinkler systems and elevators, and they disallow lead paint. New buildings rarely burn down, rarely poison their residents, and nearly always include at least one or two units designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs.
And despite what old-home snobs may believe, new housing is also just plain nice to live in—in many ways an objective improvement on what came before.
New housing does indeed have features, including aesthetic choices and functionality, that often better suit current users. Safety can be a persuasive argument. And there certainly is a need for more housing units in many locations.
However, continuing to use, rehabbing or renovating, and preserving housing can sometimes address these concerns and provide continuity in structure and character. We often tie concepts like stability, tradition, and permanence to housing units, even if they are not the best construction or something better comes along later.
What would be interesting to see is if one American city or region was willing to commit to building new housing in the way described in this piece. If there is there is the will and resources to construct plentiful, attractive, and safe new housing and not fix up or save older homes, what would happen?How would it transform everyday life and society?
One aspect of this debate that I wondered about: is it greener to build a lot more new housing or to rehab existing housing?