On Development: Gutting the supply of affordable housing

Columbus should take action to preserve existing affordable apartments and houses, and to discourage the demolition that eliminates affordable housing in a time of crisis.
Construction cranes on the horizon
Construction cranes on the horizonMax Wrolstad

Montgomery County, Md., is not a newcomer to affordable housing policy. Fifty years ago, the county pioneered the idea of “inclusionary zoning” – requiring a certain percentage of homes in every development over 20 units to meet the criteria for “moderately priced dwelling units.” 

Columbus finally, grudgingly, adopted a weaker version of that concept a few years ago.

Despite Montgomery County’s forward thinking in 1973, one of its most important affordable-housing strategies was an old-fashioned tool: maintenance. Or, if you prefer jargon, call it “prioritizing the preservation of naturally occurring affordable housing.”

“Naturally occurring affordable housing” means “cheap apartments,” which are not necessarily the same as “decrepit” apartments. The rowhouse apartments, four-flats, and duplexes scattered around older parts of Columbus are often non-subsidized, “naturally occurring” affordable units. 

Maintaining those as affordable apartments should be an obvious priority – for both socioeconomic and environmental reasons. As Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, has said: “The greenest building is the one that already exists.”

The dusty demolition of old buildings sends particles into the air and solid construction materials into a landfill. We bury tons of tight-grained, old-growth lumber still as solid as it was more than a century ago, then build anew with pine grown on monoculture plantations and cut into “two by fours” that are less than two-by-four. Heavy machinery demolishes buildings and heavy trucks go back and forth from the landfill. We waste more money and energy on new buildings with inferior materials.

One study said that approach – even if the new building is 30-percent more energy efficient than the old one – requires between 10 and 80 years to make up the environmental cost of demolition and new construction.

But this is about more than using materials from demolished buildings. We also need to preserve buildingsthe “missing middle” of affordable rentals in duplexes, fourplexes, and rowhouses. Far too often, property owners will gut such homes – stripping them to the studs for a complete modernization. What they’re actually doing is pursuing a totally different and more-affluent market, reducing the supply of truly affordable housing. Those landlords may take in much greater revenue, but their upfront expenses will cut into the profits.

Architects focused on preservation says such buildings can be modernized incrementally over many years – without radical increases or rent inflation. 

But amid an affordable housing crisis and a global warming crisis, maybe we need to do more than hope property owners decide to do the right thing. The wasteful effects of gutting and demolition need to be factored into the true cost of new construction.

Maybe Columbus should follow the lead of Portland, San Antonio, and Milwaukee in adopting some sort of deconstruction policy – such as requiring (or more likely incentivizing) deconstruction; imposing fees or taxes on demolition; increasing fees on building materials in landfills. 

The U.S. Green Building Council has guidelines on developing a policy. In recent years, the council – which provides LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification – has embraced the notion that the greenest buildings already exist. As a result, interest in and awareness of deconstruction and reuse has grown.

This would not end all removal of buildings – nor should it. But it could lead to developing a robust infrastructure or supply chain for storage and reuse of materials. Already, nonprofit businesses such as Clean Turn/180 Demo in Columbus and Building Value in Cincinnati train people in deconstruction and construction, and sell the recycled lumber, bricks, stone, finishings, hardware, windows and more. Frank Road Recycling Solutions and Columbus Architectural Salvage do much the same as for-profit businesses.

Maybe there’s a role for the public sector, too – such as encouraging the Columbus and Franklin County Land Banks to identify a former lumberyard as a site for reusable building materials,

That kind of storehouse could lead to a showcase project with local architects and builders teaming up on a “Demo Demo” – a Demolition Demonstration with a few new houses or fourplexes built almost entirely out of materials salvaged from deconstructed buildings.

At the very least, Columbus – and local governments around the region – should take action to preserve existing older and affordable apartments and houses, and to discourage the demolition and gutting that eliminate affordable housing in a time of crisis.

(Some information in this article will be included in a session during the Columbus Landmarks 2023 Conference May 15 and 16 at Columbus College of Arts & Design, 390 E. Broad St.)

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