Urban

The Implications of Older Housing Stock for Cities

Old homes can pose a unique set of challenges for local governments. View detailed housing data for hundreds of cities.
by | August 2014
A street in Buffalo, N.Y.
A street in Buffalo, N.Y., which has the nation's largest share of houses that are at least 75 years old. FlickrCC/jofo2005
 

City blocks in many of the older neighborhoods of Rochester, N.Y., don’t look much different than they did generations ago. More than half of the city’s nearly 100,000 housing units are more than 75 years old, one of the highest shares of aging housing stock nationally. Such older homes and their historic architecture certainly can add charm and character to a community. But at the same time, an older housing stock can pose a unique set of challenges for local governments.

Fewer than 18 million of the nation’s current homes were built before 1940, according to recent Census Bureau estimates. While that’s only about 14 percent of the housing stock, the share is exponentially higher in select pockets of the country.

Take Buffalo, N.Y., which was essentially built out by the 1960s. Census estimates suggest 63 percent of housing units in the city are at least 75 years old -- the largest share in the nation of cities with 50,000 units or more. Other cities where older homes are most prevalent include Boston, Providence, R.I., and St. Louis.

For cities with an aging housing stock, preventing homes from falling into disrepair is surfacing as a top priority. “Having the architectural structures and historical landmarks is a great thing when you’re able to maintain them,” Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren says. “But when you’re not able to maintain them, it becomes a liability and you have to employ innovative approaches.”

The Rochester Land Bank Corp., established last year, began acquiring vacant and abandoned properties in the city, most of which will be demolished or sold to developers. The city is focusing its efforts on revitalizing four transitioning neighborhoods by targeting additional funding from federal Community Development Block Grants, city programs, outside agencies and the private sector.

Progress can be slow. Properties may sit vacant for years, hindered by a prolonged foreclosure process. An even larger problem stems from all the out-of-town investors who’ve scooped up properties to flip or rent. “We’ve gone through this period of trying to make people take homeownership—even if it’s an investment property—very seriously,” Warren says.

Del Smith, who heads the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, says his staff tries to strike a balance in applying code enforcement. While they cite the owners of blighted properties after several warning notices, they don’t want to overburden poorer residents of the city. Rochester has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates. “We’re never going to have enough resources to address all the vacant housing and all the issues of blight,” Smith says, “but we can try to create economic opportunities for those who are left out.”

Because older homes require more upkeep, building inspection and code enforcement are two crucial front-line implications for localities, says James Brooks, director of city solutions at the National League of Cities (NLC). Providing assistance to elderly residents, who often lack the financial means or physical ability to repair older homes, is also of particular concern for officials.

Yet a home’s construction date might not always be the most reliable indicator of its condition, especially for those in well-maintained historic neighborhoods. “A lot of times, the construction of these properties is brick,” Brooks says, “and they’re probably better made 150 years ago than they were yesterday.” Also complicating matters is the public infrastructure surrounding older homes. Water and sewer lines connecting older city blocks can date back more than 100 years, so replacing them is a costly proposition.

Outdated types of older homes may create further public safety hazards. Modern building codes, which require compartmentalization of structures and smoke alarms, didn’t go into effect until around the 1970s. When a fire ignites in a home built before then, it can spread much more rapidly. “Housing that’s not maintained and that was built to pre-modern building codes all pose challenges to fire departments,” says the National Fire Protection Association’s Ken Willette.

To combat fires in select types of older structures, departments may deploy additional manpower on the initial response. They may also conduct outreach in these neighborhoods encouraging residents to install smoke alarms. Boston is home to many “triple deckers” -- wood construction buildings with three apartment units stacked on top of one another. Boston Fire Commissioner John Hasson says his department deploys additional firefighters and equipment when there’s a report of a triple-decker fire. “It’s not unusual to get a fire that starts in the basement,” he says, “then, when you drive up, it’s up to the roof already.”

Hasson cited older brick or brownstone buildings with wooden interiors as among the most dangerous. Such structures, common in the city's Back Bay and South End neighborhoods, retain heat during a fire and are prone to interior collapse. In March, two city firefighters were killed battling a blaze that swept through a four-story Back Bay brownstone.

Still, older homes often remain valuable assets, particularly those in historic districts. Research suggests property values in designated historic districts generally rise 5 to 35 percent more per decade than homes in undesignated neighborhoods in the same areas.

Older homes are also common in densely populated, walkable neighborhoods near transit. It’s these same neighborhoods that are acting as a catalyst for urban revival, attracting young newcomers and recent retirees alike.

To leverage their older housing stock, cities need to preserve it or establish historic neighborhoods, NLC’s Brooks says. That way, communities can continue to reap benefits for years to come.

City Housing Data

Select a city below to show Census Bureau estimates indicating the age of its housing stock.

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