Guest column: Historic houses a burden or a resource?

In the 2013 city budget adopted this year is a line item of $250,000 to purchase and demolish severely deteriorated housing structures that have become a blight on their neighborhoods. This is not an intrinsically bad idea. It just has a few serious flaws.

This is a significant amount of money to simply throw at a symptom of a serious problem without ever addressing the underlying cause of the problem. Treating symptoms and pretending this will cure the disease is a common practice with governments, as well as doctors, businesses, and regular people. The problem is that we continue to be sick, go bankrupt, and remain dysfunctional.

The dysfunctional part is that fully half (about 6,000 units) of the occupied residential property in the city were built between 1942 and 1946. The majority of the residential structures (not including the cemesto houses) and the associated infrastructure were built of inferior materials due to war shortages and assembled rapidly in a time of great crisis. Some were rental units from the time the government sold them, and many others have become rental units over time. Most are still owner-occupied. Many have been substantially renovated or rehabilitated. Many are at various stages of disrepair.

If the purchase and demolition of a deteriorated house costs $45,000 (the most recent demolition in November 2012), then the budget will allow for five structures per year to be removed. This will undoubtedly help all five of those neighborhoods to maintain their property values and neighborhood stability.

In the meantime, the deterioration of other homes continues at an accelerated pace with each passing year, and the cost of maintenance cannot be directly borne by the public. Consider the impact of $250,000 loaned to 25 homeowners ($10,000) for repairs at no interest and paid back to be loaned out again. Now we’d be thinking about policy!

The plan to purchase and demolish is itself not sustainable. There simply will never be enough public money to have significant impact on the deterioration. More to the point, the plan to purchase and demolish is not a policy; it’s not even a strategy. It really amounts to little more than window dressing; one of those Band-aids with flowers printed on it; well-meaning, but inadequate to stop the bleeding.

There are several ways to start looking at methods to create a housing policy that meets the specific needs of Oak Ridge. One of the first questions is whether a housing policy would be a stand-alone policy or would it be just a component of an overall economic policy. I think it would be a component of economic policy. As the city has never developed a comprehensive economic policy, or a vision of the future, or goals for the next five (not to say 20) years, or even a plan or a strategy, I plan to just take it one component at a time and write about housing history, where we are now and my thoughts on the roadmap that we need to develop together.

In April 2009, the Chamber of Commerce held a day-long housing conference and invited a skilled demographer to talk about Oak Ridge’s housing challenges. Everyone I know who attended still talks about that conference. We learned that the existence of attractive, affordable housing is the single most important component to growth and economic stability of a community and that Oak Ridge has one of the largest and best positioned supplies of “starter homes” in the country. They need to be updated and given curb appeal, but these houses should be considered a natural resource of Oak Ridge and valued accordingly.

Last year the Chamber had another housing seminar put on by a city planner. The most significant thing he talked about was how to increase the economic value of the property within a city. He pointed out that the removal of an old house and replacement with another house does not add significant value to the property in a city. One house replaced by another, although perhaps doubling the property value for that lot, has only an insignificant impact on the total property value of the city; it is just one in 12,000.

Contrary to urban mythology in Oak Ridge, the cemesto (alphabet) houses were not built to be temporary. I make this statement unequivocally because the historical evidence supports this.* However, I have heard the 6,000 remaining original houses referred to many times as being temporary, disposable, and not worth salvaging.

When the city decided to put real money into purchasing and demolishing of unsalvageable, deteriorated historical homes and doing so without ever talking about their historical importance or a plan to rehabilitate the others that needed attention, I felt the situation needed discussion. I will first address the cemesto houses as these 2,600 houses were the first ones built.

The Manhattan Engineering District (MED) that included all the properties in all the sites of the Manhattan Project (500,000 acres) was established in 1941 as an autonomous unit within the Corps of Engineers due to the extreme need for secrecy. The town of Oak Ridge was the only town designed or constructed at any of the MED sites that was designed to be permanent. Materials and prefabrication designs had been researched, developed, and used for public housing during the 1920s and 30s. When the United States became the supplier of war material to Europe in 1940 and millions of people migrated to work in the factories, the methodology and materials were already in place for rapidly constructing low-cost houses, and Congress put $100 million into the effort in that year.

The cemesto houses were the result of wallboards and roofing shingles created by the Celotex Corporation and low cost, pre-fabricated house designs of the Pierce Foundation. These two companies came together in 1941 to build the Pierce Foundation Cemesto house, with walls of Celotex Cemesto Panels and a roof of Celo-Roof Strip Roofing. It was the use of these prefabricated panels and roofing with standardized sizes that greatly decreased the construction time. One of the first requirements had been that no cutting take place in the construction of the houses.

In 1940, the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill began to collaborate with Pierce in the designs, and in 1941, SOM got the contract to design the town of Oak Ridge.

The Oak Ridge valley was selected for a variety of strategic reasons, but primarily for the existence of Tennessee Valley Authority power. Initially, a normal temporary military housing type (cheaply built and easy to remove) was proposed and an architect hired to make preliminary drawings.

However, the District Engineer did not approve the plans and Gen. Leslie Groves agreed that “primitive housing could not be expected to meet family requirements of the class of personnel to be employed on this particular project.” Wilbur Kelly, principal engineer for the Corps stated that “although plant construction and operation were the primary purposes of the project, housing was not a sideline and should be treated as such.”

In the new design, green belt planning was easily incorporated due to the Army’s need for the security this afforded and the topography dictated the placement of roads. It was thought that curvilinear streets would protect post-war neighborhoods from commercial encroachment and the resulting blight.

As the Army had no idea of the number of people who would need housing, the plan was designed in modules with neighborhoods consisting of 1,000 families with associated commercial areas and schools, chapels, and recreational areas. SOM was successful in incorporating prewar planning concepts such as neighborhood modules, superblocks with extensive green space for naturalistic settings. The houses routinely exceeded cost limits in Army rules with fireplaces, kitchen appliances, and dining rooms in larger models.

These houses and neighborhoods constitute a historic story that needs to remain a part of Oak Ridge, a design for well-laid-out neighborhoods and a resource for attracting young families. The continued sustainability of these houses and neighborhoods is the underpinning of the sustainability of the city itself. Coming up will be an exploration of how to finance and logistically support the rehabilitation of historic houses. I hope everyone remembers that the overall theme of these columns is the need for policy discussions and formation.

*This column contains an extrapolation from a 118-page master’s thesis written by Emily Anne Gunsburger (Makas), “The Cemesto House in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, 1997″ and found in the Oak Ridge Room at the Oak Ridge Library.

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  • J. Campbell

    Excellent article by Ms. Fain. I hope she will continue you to pursue this area. especially hope she and others will push City Council to develop a plan for how neighborhoods will evolve into better neighborhoods with significantly better housing, where a significant number of houses (in those neighborhoods) have been condemned and removed.

    Ms. Fain makes two statements in her article that seem contradictory that I hope she will resolve. In the first one, she says “If the purchase and demolition of a deteriorated house costs $45,000 (the most recent demolition in November 2012), then the budget will allow for five structures per year to be removed. This will undoubtedly help all five of those neighborhoods to maintain their property values and neighborhood stability.

    In the 2nd statement (that seems to contradict the first) she states,”he (a city planner) pointed out that the removal of an old house and replacement with another house does not add significant value to the property in a city. One house replaced by another, although perhaps doubling the property value for that lot, has only an insignificant impact on the total property value of the city; it is just one in 12,000.”

    It seems that if replacement of a condemned home in a neighborhood improves that neighborhood (or 5 neighborhoods), then it would improve the city as well.

    • Pat Fain

      J. campbell, sorry for the inconsistency and thanks for pointing it out… you are right… the proper comparison is between growth related to the lowest density (single family detached homes) and multi density such as apartments… economic growth is only slightly enhanced by replacing single family homes with another similar home. Statistically insignificant for real tax base growth….. the major real value increase is to the stability of the neighborhood. Thus strategic replacement has a role in an overall policy of economic growth, but it is only one element. when it is the only element, the economic value is marginal…. I appreciate your careful reading… Pat

  • Susie Williams Taylor

    ORHS ’62 – Thank you Pat Fain! Another excellent article and one of the most informative I’ve read….I grew up in a “D” house on Everest Circle. I was captivated reading the history behind these “alphabet” houses. I look forward to your next article!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelly.callison Kelly Callison

    Pat does write great articles. She only left off one key fact that came out during the housing summit and that is the young families we are so desperate to attract are not interested in a home from the 40′s or even the 60′s. They in general (always dangerous to generalize) would like to move into a new or almost new 1200 to 2400 square foot home that they don’t have to fix up. They would like to enjoy all the things in Oak Ridge (hiking, rowing, playing at the park) Pat talked about in her previous column and not be tied to fixing up a home.

    The reason that it costs so much for the city to demolish one of the blighted legacy homes (that has essentially caved in on itself) is the hazardous material that is now mixed in all the trash. That material by itself almost doubles the cost of the job. It requires a special crew to remove it and it has to be taken to a site that will accept hazardous material.

    If you really want a plan than get the Housing Authority involved. They currently only do half the job they are chartered to do. If they had done the whole job the state charters them to do there would not be Applewood Apartments or blighted legacy homes.

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.wells.7509 Aaron Wells

      Please explain why you feel that the ORHA could do away with the Applewood Apartments. Following that question it sounds very extreme to say that a government supported agency can just do away with all of the “blighted legacy homes”.

      • http://www.facebook.com/kelly.callison Kelly Callison

        It has nothing to do with feelings. If you read the Tennessee code they have very broad powers. Some would say amazing powers. Eminent domain, etc. Yes a scary word, but its right there in the list of tools at their disposal. Like everything else there are checks and balances, but used properly they could make major changes in Oak Ridge. Also let me be clear in saying that there are lots of great legacy homes in the City, but unfortunately they are often surrounded by blighted homes that dramatically impact their market value and resident’s security..

        • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.wells.7509 Aaron Wells

          Im not sure where “feelings” were ever brought into my earlier post. But I am concerned with your consideration of “broad powers” and “eminent domain” in dealing with our City’s middle class homes.
          As a lifelong resident I am an advocate for improved housing conditions but not at the hands of an imposing and possibly unconstitutional government board. I see nothing “amazing” in any of those above mentioned powers.

        • trina baughn

          Kelly – Of our 6,000 legacy homes, how many have been deemed “blighted?”

        • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.wells.7509 Aaron Wells

          Sorry “feelings” is not what I intended but rather your thoughts on how the ORHA could get rid of Applewood when the City itself cannot. I am concerned with your consideration of “broad powers” and “eminent domain” in dealing with our City’s middle class homes.
          As a lifelong resident I am an advocate for improved housing conditions but not at the hands of an imposing and possibly unconstitutional government board. I see nothing “amazing” in any of those above mentioned powers.

    • Pat Fain

      Kelly, thanks for reading and commenting. just a couple of differences to point out. I also attended the Housing Conf in April 2009 and took lots of notes. what I remember is Dr. McKibbon saying was that Oak Ridge has one of the largest starter home stocks in the country. He said that what Oak Ridge lacked was nice family friendly apartments; that the usual pattern is for young families to start out in apartments and in a couple of years start looking for their first home to buy; usually a small inexpensive home; that they look first at the local area and if they have school aged children or like the amenities (recreation, restaurants, etc) will want to stay in the area. there is also an opportunity for older people downsizing to smaller, single story houses. For many families, especially the young ones, financial assistance to fix up the homes can make all the difference. Structurally nearly all of the cemesto and a large percentage of other types of construction are very sound and very amenable to rehab. The biggest problem with new is the cost. I have talked to local realtors who specialize in selling these homes and they are my main source of information.

      I am also on the Board of Habitat for Humanity, who both build and rehab houses all over Oak Ridge. I know that Habitat gets houses demoed occasionally and the last one cost about $2500…. this is compared to the city cost of $17,000. the difference may be that Habitat has staff certified and experienced in asbestos and lead removal and safety. I have seen the invoices and I feel certain the executive director would show them to you also.

      I totally agree with you on the housing authority problems, but I disagree on the solution you are seeking. I want to see a housing policy that begins with major public input from all the people in a public forum but not in the usual 3 minutes before the city council… a real public meeting structured so that all can be heard… not just you and me and the rest of the chattering class.

      thanks again for a good discussion… Pat

      • http://www.facebook.com/johnhuotari John Huotari

        Kelly, I’ve heard something similar from one local real estate agent, that young families usually don’t want a home that needs to be renovated, and they usually want modern amenities.

        Pat, I had forgotten what the demographer had said about the apartments. Thanks for the reminder. I was trying to recall what apartment complexes have built or proposed since then. Centennial Village Apartments are the only ones I can think of.