Whose History Is Being Preserved, Exactly?

As the housing crisis continues, advocates are increasingly wary of historic preservation efforts that serve to perpetuate historic inequities and keep housing costs high.

2 minute read

July 26, 2022, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

A row of Victorian homes in San Francisco, California

Whose History Is Being Preserved, Exactly? | Maks Ershov / A San Francisco street

San Francisco’s St. Francis Wood neighborhood was just added to the National Register of Historic Places, making it much more difficult to build projects, reports Benjamin Schneider in the San Francisco Examiner. Housing advocates decry the move as a NIMBY action to prevent development in the area. 

The historic designation makes the neighborhood exempt from SB9, SB10, and SB35, all state bills that allow for higher-density construction in an effort to alleviate the state’s housing crisis and undo decades of exclusionary and racist policies. “If you are preserving structures with the requirement that they remain single-family homes forever, when the origin of that single-family home was so Black people and Japanese people and Chinese people could not live there, is that really what you want to preserve?” asks Annie Fryman, a housing policy expert working for Abodu.

Activists worry that more communities will follow suit. “Already, wealthy communities from Palo Alto to Pasadena have tried to skirt SB 9, the statewide duplex law, by creating historic districts.” 

“Fryman thinks there could have been a middle ground where the streets, parks and monuments of St. Francis Wood could have earned a historic designation but not the houses, which she describes as a ‘jumbling and sort of incoherent mix of 25 disparate revival styles.’” 

While Fryman acknowledges that all neighborhoods can be precious to their residents, “If we historically preserve every neighborhood in San Francisco, we will be taking an enormous step backward, both in terms of equity and racial outcomes, and our housing crisis.”

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