Ask ELi: Why Would You Want to Live in a Historic District?

Monday, April 15, 2019, 7:13 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: Houses in the Oakwood Historic District.

City Council is considering changing the boundaries of the Oakwood Historic District – even talking about whether it’s time to get rid of some historic districts around town. That has people around town debating the question of whether and how East Lansing's historic districts matter.

In those discussions, some people have been asking why any sane person would want to live in a historic district. Today, for Ask ELi, we’re answering that question. The answers I’m providing here are based on asking my neighbors, my husband, and myself that question.

By way of background, my spouse and I have lived in the Oakwood Historic District for 20 years in a house built in 1923. Houses here are built very close to each other, and the area includes a lot of student rental houses that sometimes bust into noisy parties.

Houses here require a lot of love and money. We’ve had to replace plumbing and electrical systems, manage lead paint, deal with the challenges of old trees and an old foundation, and ask for approval when we’ve made changes visible from the street. That included when we added a rail to our front porch and when we completely redid our kitchen, the outside wall of which is visible from the street.

So why would anyone go through this?

Our houses were affordable.

Many neighbors tell me they bought in Oakwood rather than Glencairn or Chesterfield Hills (which feature houses of the same vintages) simply because they could afford to buy here. Because our houses are closer to student rentals, and because they are in a grittier part of town, they were not as expensive as some similar models in other neighborhoods.

My husband and I were able to buy our house in 1998 when I was still an assistant professor and he was a medical resident. Like a lot of our neighbors, we felt safe investing here, including with improvements, because we knew the historic district rules would stop houses around us from degrading.

Here are some examples of houses in the south Bailey neighborhood where houses have been changed by landlords not restricted by historic district rules. All of these photos were taken from the street – the view that is regulated in historic districts.

Here are some examples of rental houses in Oakwood that have been preserved by landlords under the Historic District rules. One of the major landlords here, CRMC, makes a point of choosing historic colors and doing a three-color approach that makes each house look more attractive.

Without the Historic District rules, these houses could easily be “remuddled” by landlords to maximize profit.

It's important to understand that the homeowners who live in Glencairn who don't want to be added to the Oakwood Historic District don't live in a neighborhood like Oakwood in terms of the mix of rental and owner-occupied houses. Their neighborhood is aesthetically quite stable because it is almost entirely owner-occupied; homeowners have reason to keep their houses looking nice. Ours is aesthetically stable because of the historic district rules; landlords have to put aesthetics from the street over profit.

Here is a photo of houses on Marshall Street in Oakwood:

Can you guess which one is the rental? It’s the middle one, preserved, like the houses on either side, under Historic District rules.

The following photo shows rental houses just across the street, also in the Historic District. You can see that those houses have kept their original shapes and styles.

Here are two more houses on my street, both owner-occupied, and both with rentals immediately adjacent.

Right across the street from the house above are rental houses maintained under the historic district rules, including this one.

The Historic District boundaries provide economic insurance here.

The value of your home is impacted by what is around it. As they say, what matters in real estate is location, location, location. Our neighborhood has a lot of houses that could be quickly devalued if houses around them change to a poor aesthetic.

Here is the Chase Newman house, an owner-occupied and landmarked house in Oakwood.

Just north of that house on Hillcrest Avenue is a series of more owner-occupied houses:

Right next to the Chase Newman house is a student rental house:

There are lots of other historic houses in this area, also rented out.

If the area were to cease to be in an historic district, the student rental houses all around us would be likely to change, and potentially change quickly. Landlords have repeatedly asked permission from the Historic District Commission to replace wood siding and older windows with vinyl. They often prefer open parking on driveways to maintaining old garages, because more cars can be parked and there’s less upkeep. Having lots of cars parked on open driveways is pretty ugly.

So, the rules stop degradation of properties around us, and that protects our house values and our quality of life.

Here are two more examples of rental houses that have been maintained in Oakwood under the rules:

These houses above, on the east side of Forest Street, directly face a series of owner-occupied houses’ backyards on the west side of Forest Street, shown here:

So, the concern among some homeowners is fast devaluation of properties and quality of life if the Council decides to chip away at the District into which homeowners bought.

People love the histories of these houses.

The old wood windows and doors and stoops that landlords want to replace in our neighborhood are the very features that drew many of us to buy here. We love showing each other our old floors, moldings, and fixtures.

In houses like ours, you literally find history in the walls. In my house, during renovations, we have found old newspapers, postcards, playing cards, vitamin mixes, and even a silver bullet. One of our neighbors has a greenhouse just off her kitchen built by a man who was a professor of agriculture in the 1920s. Many of us have cisterns, coal shoots, and cubbies for milk deliveries.

My house (above) was built by Charlie Washburn. Charlie was a player in town – a downtown business owner who was known for facilitating the recruitment of young men for the Michigan Agricultural College’s teams. (MAC became MSU.) Ads for his soda and tobacco shop featured young men hoisting young women back into their dorm room windows after curfew. We love knowing about the man who planted some of our mature trees and built our home.

Our neighborhood’s good design improves our quality of life.

Houses here were built very close together. That was the style of urban housing in the 1920s. Porches were also very common, and still are. This type of design attracts people who want to be with other people, and so it encourages neighborliness. Our small garages mean that we can’t store a lot of equipment, so many of us share tools. We know when someone needs help with a car stuck in the driveway or with a fire or flood, because we can easily hear about it, and we do help.

Ann Nichols pointed out in her recent letter to Council that this style of housing has enabled us to get to know our neighbors, including our student neighbors – and that’s better for everybody.

Historic houses that are well maintained often attract renters who appreciate these houses. Some of our student neighbors garden (see below for a photo taken two days ago), they enjoy hammocks slung between the big trees, and they eat meals on their porches. What you see in student rental neighborhoods that are not in historic districts is the enclosure of front porches in the interest of more rentable bedroom space and the paving over of front yards. Nichols notes that preserving our district means preserving quality community life, including town-gown relations.

Licensing restricts how many people a house can be rented to, so landlords can’t just add renters if historic district protections are removed. But they can make additions and changes without any consideration for aesthetics. That often means cheap, unattractive additions that do not encourage neighborly behaviors. (Landlords want to make money; we get it.)

Additionally, bigger houses attract bigger parties. One reason many of us feel protected by the Historic District is that we know most of the rental houses around us can’t easily get bigger (and louder).

Many of us don’t find the historic district rules terribly onerous.

In some places in Michigan, being in a historic district means being highly restricted in terms of what you can do to your property. But in East Lansing, the rules are more relaxed. They are designed to keep houses looking authentic from the street. They don’t restrict what you do that is not visible from the street (zoning code may), nor what you do inside.

Above is an example of an Oakwood house where a side porch was enclosed with historic district permission. Below is an example of an Oakwood house that was recently rehabilitated under historic district guidance. The owner of the house below recently asked permission to put in a new garage door, because the old one, cute as it is, has become nonfunctional and has gaps that allow animals in. She was given permission to replace the door.

We’ve had the belief the neighborhood might become more owner-occupied.

A lot of people bought into this neighborhood assuming it might gentrify, especially with the promise of an improved downtown. I have heard the hope that soon the housing market will shift such that historic houses that are now rented will be sold to people who want to live in them.

It looks like this may be starting to happen, as we have seen a shift in the rental market here. Houses are taking longer to rent, and that means some landlords might decide to sell to people who want to rehab and live in more of the homes here.

Some on City Council have suggested that taking houses out of historic district protection could make them more likely to flip to owner-occupied, because owners won’t be restricted in use.

Many here think the opposite is likely to happen. If landlords are suddenly free of historic district rules and find that their profits rise (because with removal of the historic district rules they can use cheaper materials for maintenance and built cheap additions), those houses will probably never flip to owner-occupied. They might be replaced by modern, denser rental housing – and that might be OK, but it would change the character of this neighborhood significantly.

Every historic district in East Lansing is different, so the descriptions here should not be understood to be applicable to all districts. This is just a sampling of views from people who are happy to have invested in the Oakwood Historic District.

 

Want to weigh in on Council's upcoming decision about the Oakwood Historic District boundaries? You can speak at City Council’s meetings at the start of the meetings and contact Council through email. You can also:

  • see a map of the historic district here.
  • see the City's page on "living in a historic district" here;
  • see our last two reports on the Oakwood Historic District boundary discussions here, here, and here;
  • see the boundary study committee's report here;
  • see the State Historic Preservation Officer's criticisms of the report here.

Disclosure: ELi has received donations from many individuals with properties potentially affected by Council’s decisions about historic districts, including homeowners, landlords, and commercial property owners in Glencairn, Oakwood, Bailey, Chesterfield Hills, and College Grove. Ann Nichols is ELi’s Managing Editor, and Alice Dreger, ELi’s Publisher, nominated her for the Crystal Award for her work on neighborhood relations. Dreger also owns a house with Aron Sousa (her spouse) in the Oakwood Historic District. They are close neighbors of Ruth Beier and donated $500 to Beier’s 2013 City Council campaign. ELi’s regular reporters Chris Root, Karessa Wheeler, Ken Sperber, and Val Thonger also own homes in the Oakwood Historic District.

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