Design Advocacy Group gets funding to focus on rowhouse preservation

For years Philadelphia has tried to build its way out of our affordable housing problem through new construction. But a smarter solution may be right under our noses: Rowhouse preservation.

The Design Advocacy Group (DAG) has been awarded a grant from the London-based Oak Foundation to map out ways to preserve rowhouses and develop policy for minimum housing standards in Philadelphia.

Among the Oak Foundation’s grant making priorities are addressing housing and homelessness. In DAG it has found an interesting partner to identify creative approaches to Philadelphia’s historic housing challenges.

“Oak wanted to come to DAG because of our diversity within the community of planning and architecture. We’re not in any one camp,” DAG chairwoman Kiki Bolender said.

The timing is also prime given the upcoming municipal elections. The hope is to challenge candidates in next year’s election to support a new, strategic housing policy that promotes rowhouse preservation to meet multiple goals. 

DAG’s preliminary research suggests that rowhouse preservation is a cost-effective means to secure affordability, keep low-income homeowners in place, create healthier homes for residents, and support Philly’s rowhouse identity.

DAG’s Healthy Rowhouse Project will focus on ways to get more bang for the city’s housing buck. They estimate that for the cost of one new affordable home, 18 or more existing rowhouses could be preserved.

The project is rowhouse-centric, as Bolender explained, because the rowhouse is Philadelphia’s most fundamental building type, as diverse as it is ubiquitous. According to city data rowhouses comprise 70% of all of Philly’s housing and 75% are more than 50 years old. Homeownership in Philadelphia is higher among low-income residents than any other American city next to Detroit, and many are owned without mortgages.

But aging homes and owners of modest means can lead to difficult choices about paying for repairs versus moving. And that breakpoint, Bolender said, can be “heartbreakingly small.” By helping with strategic repairs, and making the city’s existing repair programs more effective, the hope is that fewer homeowners will be faced with those tough choices. Ideally that would enable longtime owners to stay in place, and even capture more value from their housing assets in neighborhoods where property values are rising. At a certain point of disrepair, residents and owners may simply walk away. So housing preservation could help stem the tide of vacancy too.

Substandard housing also takes a toll on the health of residents, but small repairs can have broad impact. Research from a Philadelphia-based pilot project suggests that low-cost mold remediation and weatherization work can reduce asthma attacks and hospital visits, which result in children missing school and adults missing work.

It’s also important to think of this work as preservation in the broadest sense, encompassing issues of affordability, quality, and historic neighborhood fabric. Bolender said historic preservation is a goal of this project in so far as rowhouse repairs help stabilize our aging housing blocks against decay and loss. 

In the coming months a DAG project committee comprised of Bolender (Bolender Architects), Scott Page (Interface Studio), Emaleigh Doley (West Rockland Street Project), Peter Angelides (Econsult) and Karen Black (May 8 Consulting) will finalize its research around rowhouse preservation and develop standards that they will urge the city to adopt. Expect to see a new website and data library for this project soon, and public conversations on the subject early next year.

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