Historic preservation tax breaks

As gas prices soar, the attractiveness of inner city homes rises.  Mostly black neighborhoods like U Street in Washington, D.C. or Jackson Ward in Richmond, VA are now trendy places.

But a big reason is the financial incentive provided by historic preservation tax credits.  There are federal credits available for individual homes and large developments and many states also offer property tax credits.

In California, the Mills Act can provide as much as an 80 percent reduction in property taxes.  I’m conducting a study of historic buildings in San Francisco, a city which lost more than 50 percent of its black population in the past 30 years, when everyone else in the world was clamoring to get here. It’s becoming clear that the population decline dovetails with the passage of this act in 1972.

The century-old buildings considered blighted in the 1950s and 1960s when black working class folks occupied them suddenly went into vogue.  It appears that blacks were not aware of and did not take advantage of the incentive programs, which allowed the money saved on property taxes to go into making improvements.

Not only did the black homeowners not get the abatements, but they had to pay even more property taxes when the value of the nearby gentrified homes rose.  Eventually many sold out, or even worse, have been caught in predatory lending schemes, trying to keep pace.

There are still a lot of black homeowners in San Francisco and other California cities, as well as the oldest parts of cities nationally.  We’re holding a conference Oct. 1-2 called Preserving California Black Heritage to explain how historic preservation works. It’s the second annual event and we’ll unveil a new study on black historic sites in San Francisco.

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