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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Preserving America’s great open spaces – and providing affordable housing


2016 isn’t just a special time for CIH – in the United States, the National Park Service is also celebrating its centenary, marking 100 years since the National Park Service Organic Act was passed. But how well-known is its role in affordable housing provision? CIH senior knowledge management and research administrator Niki Walton explains.

Image of Boyle Hotel LAWhat comes to mind when you think of the USA’s National Park Service? Maybe it's the iconic parks and monuments – Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon. Or perhaps it's the great American outdoors: parkland, mountains, forests - places where thousands of Americans spend their weekends hiking or camping.

These are great answers, but there’s more to the National Park Service than this, and some of it has been involved in the provision of affordable housing.

The National Park Service’s remit encompasses all of the above and more, including the preservation of historical buildings. Through its technical preservation services (TPS), empty and surplus buildings of historical interest can be transferred into state and local government ownership, while a programme of tax incentives encourages private sector investment in the reuse and rehabilitation of these buildings, bringing them back into use and spearheading rehabilitation within their neighbourhoods.

While many revitalised buildings are brought back into use to continue their original purpose, such as hotels and theatres, many are repurposed into housing, including affordable housing. In 2014-15, fifty per cent of completed projects using tax incentives contained housing, a third of which were affordable housing.

  • Toms Brook School, in Toms Brook, Virginia, was built in 1935 and closed its doors in 1991, having sat empty and deteriorating from then until 2012, when it was converted for residential use. Many of the original features were preserved or retained. The two-storey-high assembly hall was converted into a common room and community access space, while the classrooms were converted into fourteen affordable rent apartments of varying sizes. Watch this short video about the conversion
  • The Boyle Hotel in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles was built in 1889 and is the last remaining building from the neighbourhood’s founding years. The upper floors of the building had been converted into apartments in 1918, but by the 21st century the building was in disrepair and at risk of demolition. With funding from a variety of sources including the TPS, the building was rescued and converted, with retail units on the ground floor and 51 affordable housing units above.
  • Bates Mill #2 was established before the Civil War by the Bates Manufacturing Company in Lewiston, Maine, turning the town from a small farming community into the state’s third-largest city. The building was in commercial use until 2000, and was converted in 2011 to restore historical features and to provide storage facilities on the ground floor, and 48 apartments on its upper floors, 33 of which are affordable. The building also contains a laundry, community centre, and fitness facilities.

The rehabilitation of these buildings and many others across the country means more of the everyday history of the USA and its people can be preserved. The conversions into affordable housing provision have allowed many people to live more secure and comfortable lives, remaining in their home towns and continuing to be part of their communities.

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