An article recently posted on the New Geography blog examines the age of the housing stock in various metropolitan areas. The article includes a chart showing the percentage of housing in a metropolitan area that was built before 1940, compiled from the American Community Survey.
My hometown, Buffalo, is considered the third oldest metropolitan area in the country with regards to housing. The city itself, though, contains the nation;s oldest housing stock on average. From the article:
The City of Buffalo is quite small; the land area inside the city limits is only about 41 square miles (105 km2). Of that area, only about half is residential; the remainder is dedicated to commercial, industrial, institutional and transportation-related uses. Before World War I, Buffalo got its first taste of suburbanization, with development spilling over the northern, eastern and southern city limits. By 1950, Buffalo was essentially built out, its population of nearly 600,000 living in an area of about 20 square miles. There was no place left to build, except for a few scattered vacant lots near the city's edge. Neighborhoods closer to the city center were overcrowded, with two-flat fronthouses and rearhouses often sharing a single lot, and as many as six or seven dwelling units occupying a standard 25'/30' x 125' city lot.Buffalo is the nation's third oldest metropolitan area with 30.5% of its residences preceding 1940. The core city of Buffalo is the oldest historical core municipality, with 62.8% of its housing predating 1940. Buffalo suburbs, however, are considerably newer, with only 20.1% older than 1940.
Even during Buffalo's peak, the city was considered to have an old, and increasingly obsolete housing stock. Here's what planners of the day had to say about Buffalo's housing situation. (The Modern City, Buffalo City Planning Association, 1944)
When the article from New Geography was published, the blogosphere in Buffalo was abuzz. However, unlike the planners of old, the response was generally positive. The fact that Buffalo had an old housing stock was considered a good thing among the legions of armchair planners; it was a situation to be celebrated, not cured. The collectively held meme that every house constructed in Buffalo before WWII was lovingly hand-built to last hundreds of years by highly trained immigrant craftsman who helped built the great cathedrals of Europe, while everything built after WWII is soulless crap made of ticky-tacky and intentionally designed to have a lifespan of 25 years, was reflected in many of the articles and responses.
The city's more vocal and prolific urban bloggers, and those that follow them, tend to have a much different experience of the city than a typical resident. They tend to live and play in the affluent, increasingly gentrified neighborhoods on the West Side and in North Buffalo. They seldom venture east of Main Street, and they often hold a kneejerk disdain for areas that lie beyond the city limits. They're fiercely loyal to the city, and place a high value on authenticity. The Buffalo they experience in their day-to-day lives tends to be someplace like this; a city of architecturally interesting older homes with character and history; human-scaled, designed in consideration of the site, and surfaced in natural materials.
However, throughout much of the city, it's an abundance of housing like this that drive the numbers behind the age.
Few of these houses are underlain with a frame of real two-by-fours of solid old growth oak on one foot centers. They were mass produced from standardized plans, much like the "ticky-tacky" houses of today but in an era lacking building codes, for working class families. They have awkward floor plans, with no delineation of private and public space (bathrooms off the kitchen or living room, bedrooms off the dining room, etc), tiny bedrooms that often shotgun off each other, no closet space, and basements that can only be accessed from the exterior. They were often retrofitted for electricity and indoor plumbing. Interesting architectural elements, and the proportionality and scale they gave, have been lost through decades of insensitive "updates"; asphalt brick or aluminum/vinyl siding; picture windows, enclosed porches, and decorative ironwork. They've been through a hard life at the lower end of the market, with each generation of residents poorer than the last. They're often in neighborhoods where it makes little economic sense to rehabilitate them to a point where they're suitable for modern lifestyles. While it might make sense to spend $100K to rehab a cottage in a gentrifying neighborhood, in many other parts of the city, you'd still be stuck with a telescoper in the 'hood, The same amount of money it would take to rehab a cottage will buy you a decent,well-maintained bungalow in South Buffalo, North Buffalo or Kenmore.
So, who's right, the planners of the 1940s, or the armchair planners of today? Is having an older housing stock generally an asset or a liability?