This story appeared in the February issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door monthly? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
On a cool afternoon in late November, local and national preservation leaders gathered in a charming coffee shop on the edge of the Tremé neighborhood for the launch of the Revival Grants program, PRC’s newest neighborhood revitalization effort.
Revival Grants give free home repairs to low-income homeowners specifically to fix violations from the city’s Historic District Landmark Commission. These violations can range from improper types of doors or windows installed on a historic building; sagging or missing gutters; an inappropriate fence or porch railing; missing or broken shutters; and more. If there is an architectural element missing, damaged or replaced with an inappropriate alternative that is visible from the sidewalk or street on a building in a “full-control” HDLC district, the building owner will be issued a citation and a fine.
This sort of oversight from the HDLC is crucial to protecting our city’s amazing historic neighborhoods. Speculative developers would have bulldozed many homes, or replaced historic materials with cheap alternatives, long ago if neighborhoods like Tremé, Bywater, Holy Cross and the Irish Channel weren’t protected. The work of the HDLC staff and commissioners is vitally important to protecting the historic buildings we still have, and guiding thoughtful infill design in historic neighborhoods where lots are bare.
However, as we all know, historic materials can cost significantly more than alternative replacements. A new vinyl window purchased at a big box hardware store can cost a fraction of a newly milled wooden window. For struggling homeowners, house maintenance on a fixed budget is already hard enough, but complying with HDLC guidelines can be financially impossible. It’s especially difficult for homeowners who are elderly and low-income, many of whom have lived in their houses for decades as the property passed down through generations of their family.
Those longtime residents and culture bearers of our community are exactly the individuals PRC wants to help with our Revival Grants. The PRC’s mission, which was updated in 2018 to include the preservation of the city’s cultural identity, asserts that our buildings and neighborhoods are important, but they are kept alive by the people who live within them.
Low-income homeowners who receive HDLC citations often cannot afford the replacement parts or the construction work necessary to bring their home back into historic district compliance. The HDLC’s staff historically has been sensitive to these situations, granting homeowners more time to remediate citations. But the fines still weigh on these homeowners, causing untold emotional stress. Residents often must go back to City Hall to plead poverty to avoid further penalization.
The Revival Grants program seeks to stop this pattern in its tracks. The PRC is working hand-in-hand with the HDLC to identify homeowners in need and create a scope of work to fix violations. While PRC is funding the work, the homeowners have power in the process. They choose the qualified contractor who will do the repairs. After construction is complete, we will work with the city to remediate the fines. In the end, these homeowners will get the assistance they need to protect their biggest asset: their home.
We have decided to pilot this program in the full-control HDLC district of Tremé because of an onslaught of displacement due to rapidly rising property values in recent years. The neighborhood’s proximity to the French Quarter and its plethora of historic buildings have made Tremé ground zero for short-term rental development, displacing many of the neighborhood’s long-term residents. We have met with neighborhood leaders and residents in shaping this program, and will, by the time this magazine goes to press, have started work on at least three houses owned by longtime members of the community.
Who are they? One is a veteran who lives in a beautiful Creole Cottage that is plagued by termites and has a caving-in soffit. Another is a retired minister who hand-makes Mardi Gras Indian masks in her shotgun house. One gentleman, whose family has been in Tremé since the late 1800s, takes incredible care of his Creole Cottage, but has three rotting windows in need of replacement. Three siblings live together in another home, and are helping to raise their grandchildren in the same neighborhood where they grew up and raised their own children.
Though PRC’s investment is modest, our impact will be significant. Which takes us back to the coffee shop in Tremé one November afternoon. Backatown Coffee Parlour, at 301 Basin St., was packed with friends ready to cheer us on and wish us well in this new endeavor. Representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, including President and CEO Paul Edmondson, awarded the PRC two generous grants to support our first year of Revival Grants construction, hopeful that it could be a national model implemented in other cities. Representatives from the city were there, including John Pourciau, speaking on behalf of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who awarded PRC a significant Wisner Fund Grant to support our new endeavor; Elliott Perkins, director of the HDLC; and Kristin Palmer, councilperson for District “C,” without whose support and partnership this idea would never have come to fruition.
Perhaps most significantly, also in attendance were residents from Tremé, including PRC board member Jessica Knox, owner of Backatown Coffee Parlour with her husband Alzono; historic preservationists and expert renovators Adolph and Naydja Bynum, both former PRC board members, and Naydja a past president; Darryl Durham, president of the Historic Faubourg Tremé Association; Barbara Lacen Keller, part of the Mayor’s staff for cultural economy and also PRC’s Multicultural Committee Chair, and others.
It was a joyful event, but the true joy starts now, as we begin assisting homeowners in need. After our pilot period in Tremé ends, we will expand to historic districts across the city. Please spread the word to both homeowners in need and to potential sponsors for our new endeavor. PRC’s Revival Grants program truly is an exciting new way to simultaneously preserve historic buildings and help the residents who call those buildings “home.”
Danielle Del Sol is the Executive Director of the Preservation Resource Center.