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Thread: Cities with an older housing stock: asset or liability?

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Cities with an older housing stock: asset or liability?

    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:

    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.
    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.



    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?
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Cyburbian
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    It's misleading to focus solely on the age of the housing stock in question when you should factor in the type of housing stock. Take the rowhouse cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, it wasn't the age of the prevalent housing type that was a hindrance, it was the desire to move into single family houses from a rowhouse that made rowhouses obsolete and less desirable.

    But I will agree that age if seen in the context of an existing obsolete housing stock making it difficult for cities to easily redevelop the land into more productive uses, then age can be seen as a liability. While Baltimore has many thriving historic neighborhoods the city is also awash with undesirable blocks of rundown rowhouses that one wishes could be demolished en-masse so the land can be converted into other uses, either newer housing or commercial enterprises.

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    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    the value of the older housing stock, to me, is that it is contained in a "community" that planners aspire their respective towns/cities for - that is, they are usually in neighborhoods with sidewalks, street trees, interconnected streets, etc. - this also falls into the hipster movement to the inner ring suburb from another thread...

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    Cyburbian
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    What's the point of the article? It only restates the most basic, widespread common knowledge: that the oldest, established cities of the northeast tend to have the oldest building stock. Even if this was supposedly "bad," what would we expect these cities to do? Tear down everything old? Ain't gonna happen - the days of urban renewal and "slum clearance" are over. There seems to be a whiff of the old "obsolescence" mindset in that article (as is generally the case with many New Geography pieces - a lot of antiquated, nostalgic, simplistic 1950s thinking!).

    As PennPlanner said, age of the housing stock doesn't matter nearly as much as the appeal of their form (and I would add upkeep). An old Brooklyn rowhouse brought up to modern comfort and efficiency standards works just as well as any new house. And the celebrated newness of the Sunbelt will wear off in a couple decades: they'll have to engage in laborious upkeep sooner or later. A better analysis would be condition and occupancy rates: how many dilapidated or abandoned houses does a city have, whatever their age? The impeccable Back Bay wouldn't even make the list, whereas some "new" decaying or abandoned areas in foreclosure-riddled Las Vegas and California might.

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    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    Age and condition of housing stock, while related, are different. Newark, NJ has a similar looking housing stock to Buffalo's. It also has a lot of new stock that we refer to as a Bayonne Box (2-flat or 3-flat), most of these are poorly constructed and were built in the Wild West administration of Sharpe James. Some of the old housing stock is beautiful, mostly located in the Forest Hill section, other old housing stock has see better days like in the Upper Roseville section or in Clinton Hill. Lower Broadway has standard fare housing stock found throughout Newark: attached row homes, infill, and older 2-4 family homes.

    I have rehabbed one row home and a detached home in the past year and am in the process of rehabbing another row home. There are definitely challenges due to age, lack of maintenance, 80% of the housing stock are rentals, and few if any upgrades have been done. It's labor and cost intensive not to mention unpredictable from a project management perspective. I have three new 2-family homes going right now, the layout is certainly for modern lifestyle but it has a historic nod and I really try hard to better the architectural character of the locale.
    "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" Jeremiah 22:16

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    However, throughout much of the city, it's an abundance of housing like this that drive the numbers behind the age.

    I'm not sure if the housing you described and photograph is driving the age numbers in the New Geography article. Neighborhoods with a lot of "telescoped" homes have been the focus of decades of demolition programs and have become relatively rare. I think a more typical example of City of Buffalo housing would be the 1910s-20s double or bungalow, in between the fancier homes on Elmwood and the telescopes of the urban prairie. I own one of these places and it seems to be built of higher quality materials than postwar homes, including the ones built today.

    A good contrast between the two can be seen at "Colvin Estates" which is an infill subdivision being built on a former rail ROW situated among several 20s era duplexes. I'm not a carpenter, but the heavy beams, shiplap, fieldstone foundations, and cedar shake of the older housing seem like more substantial construction materials than stud mounted particle board, cinder blocks, and vinyl siding.

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    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    It's misleading to focus solely on the age of the housing stock in question when you should factor in the type of housing stock. Take the rowhouse cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, it wasn't the age of the prevalent housing type that was a hindrance, it was the desire to move into single family houses from a rowhouse that made rowhouses obsolete and less desirable.

    But I will agree that age if seen in the context of an existing obsolete housing stock making it difficult for cities to easily redevelop the land into more productive uses, then age can be seen as a liability. While Baltimore has many thriving historic neighborhoods the city is also awash with undesirable blocks of rundown rowhouses that one wishes could be demolished en-masse so the land can be converted into other uses, either newer housing or commercial enterprises.
    I agree that it's not simply age that's a housing problem. As Dan noted, in some areas of Buffalo, the age of the housing gives it "character" and charm that attracts people who will "rescue" many of these homes. It's not the neighborhoods full of Victorian mansions and tiny 19th century cottages and pre-WW I four squares that are problems. It's the working class neighborhoods full of crowded, ugly single and multifamily houses that are the problem. They are not now and never will be worth the cost of rehabbing them.

    Quote Originally posted by GButler View post
    However, throughout much of the city, it's an abundance of housing like this that drive the numbers behind the age.

    I'm not sure if the housing you described and photograph is driving the age numbers in the New Geography article. Neighborhoods with a lot of "telescoped" homes have been the focus of decades of demolition programs and have become relatively rare. I think a more typical example of City of Buffalo housing would be the 1910s-20s double or bungalow, in between the fancier homes on Elmwood and the telescopes of the urban prairie. I own one of these places and it seems to be built of higher quality materials than postwar homes, including the ones built today.

    A good contrast between the two can be seen at "Colvin Estates" which is an infill subdivision being built on a former rail ROW situated among several 20s era duplexes. I'm not a carpenter, but the heavy beams, shiplap, fieldstone foundations, and cedar shake of the older housing seem like more substantial construction materials than stud mounted particle board, cinder blocks, and vinyl siding.
    I suppose it depends on your definition of "relatively rare", but there are still block upon block of abandoned houses on the East Side. The main "demolition program" over the decades on the East Side has been "demo by arson" except for a few projects where older homes were demolished and newer, subsidized ones built. Widespread legal demolition, such as it is by Buffalo standards, only began with the Brown administration; Mayors Masiello and Griffin before him only were interested in cleaning up neighborhoods on the periphery of downtown so that they could brag on their "accomplishments".

    Furthermore, the blight spread during the Masiello administration into other parts of the city because of lax and selective code enforcement. The Brown administration hasn't been a great improvement. Much of the West Side between Grant and Niagara is full of burnt-out, abandoned and/or run-down houses. The Black Rock, Grant-Amherst, West Hertel, and Riverside sections also have growing problems with deteriorating older housing. These working class neighborhoods don't look awful from a drive through, but they have significantly deteriorated since the late 1980s when I lived in Grant-Amherst.

    The neighborhoods between Main and Richmond and north of Allentown have always been much more middle class than the neighborhoods I mentioned above. North and South Buffalo have also always been middle class areas. That's why even the smaller bungalow style homes in these neighborhoods are well built and have interesting architecture. It's Buffalo's working class neighborhoods full of cheaply built frame houses with 2 to 6 4-room "flats" to the lot that are the problem. They have no architectural "character" to attract gentrifiers or even urban pioneers. All they attract are absentee landlords, their meth head tenants, and out-of-town house flippers.
    If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

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    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    The age of the housing stock plays little role in determining the quality of a city or neighborhood. If people find a particular city, neighborhood or place desirable, they will often disregard the age or quality of the housing stock, especially as the place is just starting to gentrify.
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by GButler View post
    I'm not sure if the housing you described and photograph is driving the age numbers in the New Geography article. Neighborhoods with a lot of "telescoped" homes have been the focus of decades of demolition programs and have become relatively rare. I think a more typical example of City of Buffalo housing would be the 1910s-20s double or bungalow, in between the fancier homes on Elmwood and the telescopes of the urban prairie. I own one of these places and it seems to be built of higher quality materials than postwar homes, including the ones built today.
    What could be considered Buffalo's bungalow belt, though, where the bulk of 1920s-era "semi-bungalows", as they were called in the day, haven't aged well for the most part. (Buffalo's semi-bungalows didn't have as many of the Craftsman/Arts and Crafts design cues as what might have been seen in similar housing built in other peer cities.)


    1925. In today's dollars, that's a $123,000 house. Near Grider, which is deep in the 'hood today..

    Clockwise around the city, I think of these neighborhoods as the bungalow belt, where the semi-bungalow makes up the bulk of the housing stock:

    * Riverside
    * Kenmore (Village of Kenmore)
    * Kensington
    * Highland Park / Fillmore-Leroy
    * Schiller Park / Delavan-Bailey
    * Walden / Pine Hill (Town of Cheektowaga)
    * South Buffalo - eastern and southern portions


    A street scene in Kensington, where most semis aren't as intact as these examples.

    There's a smattering of semi-bungalows in North Buffalo (which generally had more substantial housing), the Town of Tonawanda, University Heights, Cleveland Hill (Cheektowaga), Kaisertown, Lovejoy, and the Town of West Seneca. They're also seen on what would have been infill sites deeper in the East Side, among telescoping houses and cottages in Polonia, Masten Park, and so on.

    Of the bungalow belt neighborhoods, Kenmore has always been stable and is now experiencing some gentrification, and South Buffalo is the city's "blue ghetto". Otherwise, Riverside has been struggling, Kensington and Schiller Park experienced socioeconomic/racial transition in the 1980s/1990s, Highland Park the same in the 1970s, and Walden/Pine Hill now.

    I grew up in a semi-bungalow in Kensington. Most are frame, although a few have brick facades, The floorplans are better than the cottages, although some have their quirks. Bedrooms are generally very small; 150 square feet would be on the large side. Closets are tiny.. Most only have one bathroom. Only a small minority are architecturally intact; the bulk have been subject to alterations such as asphalt/aluminum/vinyl siding, picture windows, porch enclosures, decorative metal railings, and so on. Since Buffalo wasn't an alley city, curb cuts and driveways every 30-35 feet were the norm. Semis tend to have large dining rooms, though, in deference to the large Catholic families of the day. In my travels around the city, I found the most intact semi-bungalows were in Kenmore and South Buffalo.

    Semis have the same issues as telescopers and cottages: the bulk are located in struggling or declining neighborhoods, and to borrow one of Linda's thoughts, they aren't worth the cost of rehabbing. One indicator for when whites left a neighborhood: the alterations. If there's a lot of houses with asphalt siding, whites left in the 1960s. Aluminum siding, the 1970s. Vinyl, 1980s. One doesn't see much updating after transition.

    I think the footprint of the semi is ideal for a cottage neighborhood or TND project, though,.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post


    A street scene in Kensington, where most semis aren't as intact as these examples.

    I find those incredibly unattractive. I think it's the front driveway and lack of landscaping.

    On a related note, ever notice on commercials for luxury products and in movies and tv shows about upper middle class families they almost always use a craftsman or 1920/1930's house? I was noticing this I started looking for themes in commercials where residential streetscapes are shown; I bet about 85% of the time it's a 70+ year old neighborhood.
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    ... One indicator for when whites left a neighborhood: the alterations. If there's a lot of houses with asphalt siding, whites left in the 1960s. Aluminum siding, the 1970s. Vinyl, 1980s. One doesn't see much updating after socioeconomic transition.
    That's quite perceptive. I've never heard that as an indicator before, but the logic seems sound and the pattern certainly holds true here locally and elsewhere in the region.
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    That's quite perceptive. I've never heard that as an indicator before, but the logic seems sound and the pattern certainly holds true here locally and elsewhere in the region.
    That is very interesting. I am going to have to pay more attention to that on my travels.

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    Cyburbian
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    If you have a neighborhood with sound older housing stock arranged in a vaguely attractive manner and less than Baghdad crime rates, then the neighborhood may be at imminent and dire risk of the horror of hipsterization.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by oktaren View post
    That is very interesting. I am going to have to pay more attention to that on my travels.
    mee three.

    The biggest liability IMHO is the poor insulation. In colder areas as fuel prices rise, these houses are a liability. But they are already there. I suspect in a few decades they will be in high demand as resources dwindle, if they last that long.
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    Cyburbian
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    Yep. I've had the same observation. Although newer suburban houses are also featured the clear majority of commercials utilize an older house built in the 1910s-1930s, usually a center hall colonial with white clapboard sidings and pretty shutters. There must be a reason that the producers keep using these older houses when most Americans live in much newer houses. Any speculations as to why?

    Quote Originally posted by stroskey View post
    I On a related note, ever notice on commercials for luxury products and in movies and tv shows about upper middle class families they almost always use a craftsman or 1920/1930's house? I was noticing this I started looking for themes in commercials where residential streetscapes are shown; I bet about 85% of the time it's a 70+ year old neighborhood.

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    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    Semis have the same issues as telescopers and cottages: the bulk are located in struggling or declining neighborhoods, and to borrow one of Linda's thoughts, they aren't worth the cost of rehabbing. One indicator for when whites left a neighborhood: the alterations. If there's a lot of houses with asphalt siding, whites left in the 1960s. Aluminum siding, the 1970s. Vinyl, 1980s. One doesn't see much updating after socioeconomic transition.
    This theory holds true for many parts of Newark.
    "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" Jeremiah 22:16

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    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    I was driving around my hometown last weekend and realized the nicer areas had very little vinyl siding and the poor areas had almost all vinyl siding. How did it come to be that most new houses have vinyl when the nicest ones around the older neighborhoods don't?
    I burned down the church to atone for my transgressions.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    Dunno. I consider older housing stock to be an endangered blessing, because it's the only way to find the high density, walkable neighborhoods that have been unrepentantly banned by urban planners.

    My cousin is in Portland right now trying to care for his cancer-stricken child. He's been staying in McDonalds House there, which is in an older building. That building is wearing out and needs repairs too deep to do without major reconstruction, which means, apparently, that it has to be torn down without replacement and leave him high and dry. The requirements in Portland are too strict to allow for that kind of dense, small lot development anymore. The lot itself is too small to build on anymore.

    Magazine street in New Orleans is... interesting. It's a walkable, dense, famous, lively strip of businesses, apparently possible only because the city looks the other way on parking code for whatever reason there. Now and then you'll hit these horrible missing tooth gaps with a lonely postmodern building in the background where a building had to be built to code, ruining the streetscape and creating sprawl.

    It's hideous, and leaves me concluding that the best thing that could possibly happen to any city would be for their building code to have a run-in with a huge paper shredder. After which, the code would be in a similar state as when all the wonderful neighborhoods full of historical buildings that people love were still legal to build.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian
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    Just some thoughts:

    Take the rowhouse cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, it wasn't the age of the prevalent housing type that was a hindrance, it was the desire to move into single family houses from a rowhouse that made rowhouses obsolete and less desirable.
    I would say perhaps, but offer a counter. Yes, many people have a preference for single-family detached but in a metro of millions of people, there is little reason I can see for insufficient demand for row homes. I would suspect that part of the migration to the suburbs was driven by a desire to change housing type, but part was driven by deterioration of public facilities, schools, crime, racial tensions that all accompanied shifts in population. When I was in Baltimore recently, I heard that many professionals - unable to afford the cost of housing in DC, and desiring an urban experience, were choosing to live in Baltimore in those few neighborhoods that have good train access. A friend who bid on a rowhouse there was turned off not by the fact that it was a rowhouse, but by concerns for safety, school quality, access to transit, etc. San Francisco is also a rowhouse city and parts of Oakland almost so, yet there has been little problem filling these homes. I agree there are good, mediocre and plain bad row houses and I also observed differences in physical neighborhood characteristic - for example, presence of street trees vs. houses built right up to the sidewalk, location relevant to greenspace, etc.

    I grew up in a semi-bungalow in Kensington. Most are frame, although a few have brick facades, The floorplans are better than the cottages, although some have their quirks. Bedrooms are generally very small; 150 square feet would be on the large side. Closets are tiny.. Most only have one bathroom. Only a small minority are architecturally intact; the bulk have been subject to alterations such as asphalt/aluminum/vinyl siding, picture windows, porch enclosures, decorative metal railings, and so on.
    Many of these houses in the photograph look like the types of houses that would become gentrified in the college towns I've lived in; and a developer tells me 150 sq ft bedrooms (or smaller - 8x11) are common in new construction in places like Boulder where demand is high, so I wonder how much of a hindrance these physical characteristics would be IF the neighborhood was desirable and the city or metro area were gaining rather than losing jobs and population. I've also seen plenty of people deal with awkward floor plans - combining two 7x10 bedrooms into a master suite, doing a kitchen addition, etc., if the demand is there. (I admit we are used to smaller historic homes here in Colorado than I see elsewhere in the country).

    On the other hand, even with good housing stock, economic decline would take its toll - I have seen many gems in place like Detroit or rural Colorado falling into disrepair.

    While these homes in Buffalo's Kensington are not attracting the gentrifiers, are not people living in many of them now - people who are willing to "put up" with one bathroom or smaller bedrooms based on what they can afford (as owners or renters). I wonder if there are truly structural deficiencies in most of these houses, or if it is mainly a case of not having the new kitchens, multiple baths, good climate control, and the quality sidings and architectural touches that those of us with more means might expect. And if there are ways to step up programs like weatherization, for those that are sound and inhabited, so that they can continue to serve those who live there?

    I think it comes down to an interaction of supply and demand. Here in the west where the stock of quality older homes is lower relative to overall population and to people who want older homes, gentrification seems to hit almost every pre-war neighborhood in time. I have lived in college towns where I've calculate the proportion of pre-war homes to be around 10% of the stock. In these situations, even the 50s ranch (mid-century modern) homes are becoming "hip" and being remodeled. In other cases, in Denver lower income buyers are already moving to the inner-ring postwar suburbs or even to exurbs.

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