As the world’s focus is locked on Flint, where the a catastrophic chain of cause and effect has poisoned the city’s youth. Governor Snyder’s directive to obtain water from a lower-quality source led to corrosive water leaching lead out of the city’s outdated lead pipes. Without any of those elements – the water source or the outdated lead pipes – this doesn’t happen.
However, many larger cities are facing a similar outcome with a much larger impact. Lead paint in housing has a similar effect on children. Just as Flint’s older lead pipes primarily affected African American neighborhoods, the preponderance of lead paint (banned since 1978) is also in older, inner city, African American neighborhoods. Lead paint consumption, just like lead-contaminated water consumption, can be disastrous for younger children whose bodies are still developing.
The City of Cleveland and Senator Sherrod Brown are asking for the federal government’s help on abating this issue through an existing program that has been wrongly applied in some instances. The Treasury created the $7.6 billion Hardest Hit Fund in 2010 to provide assistance, mostly through homeowner counseling, housing mortgage modifications, and housing demolition, directly to the states most affected by the housing crash. This would be mostly big states such as Ohio, Michigan, Florida, California, etc. Each state’s HFA set the policy for spending all of the money in that state.
In Michigan this program is used almost exclusively for demolishing Detroit’s historic neighborhoods en masse. To expedite this mission, Snyder undercut his SHPO’s otherwise-sanctioned duty to conduct Section 106 review of HHF-funded projects. That could be a problem if your project is just demolishing what remains of Detroit. In Ohio – at least in Cleveland – the funds are similarly put to use.
The city’s spokesperson, Natoya Walker Brown, is calling for feds to allow the funding to go toward home rehabilitation instead. This would allow the funding to be directed specifically toward abating lead paint in older neighborhoods that are still occupied, but lack the financial resources to renovate their homes every 20 years like in some areas of the city. Historic preservation groups, including the Cleveland Restoration Society and the Legacy Cities conference we co-hosted with CSU, have long been calling for the Hardest Hit Fund to take a look at housing rehabilitation not just as well, but perhaps instead.
I understand the multi-faceted argument behind demolishing unused housing stock. It reduces overall vacancy, “right-sizes” cities for their new and likely long-term populations, makes remaining property in the city more valuable, and mitigates the “broken window” effect more locally. All of those are legitimate. However, an even bigger consideration that has been completely ignored is the impact of a newly rehabilitated home on its surrounding block. Especially of that home’s exterior has been professionally restored to its original luster. Donovan Rypkema’s economic impact report on historic preservation concluded that a rehabilitated home has greater impact on its surroundings than removing blight.
While winning the economic argument will always be important for historic preservation, the real argument to win is the impact on people’s lives. Rather than destroying history and removing future opportunities from a community, the Hardest Hit Fund could be used to rehabilitate homes in low-income communities, keeping them standing, and safer for the children that grow up in them. That’s what could be done if Treasury, HFA’s, historic preservationists, and public health officials partnered toward solving this issue.