The happier side of teardowns | Bleader

The happier side of teardowns

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Buying an older house to tear it down and build a new and bigger one is "a growing disaster," "a cancer," and "an orgy of irrational destruction," according to Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Now UIC economist Daniel P. McMillen is publishing research that goes beyond the rhetoric. It's not all about the evil.

Data from Chicago and six high-demand inner-ring suburbs show the highest rate of demolition in Winnetka, where between 1996 and 2003, nine percent of total housing was torn down. (Chicago's overall rate is around three percent, but surely higher in pricey neighborhoods.) The research also shows that teardowns are purchased for the land underneath--it's all about location, meaning transit, walkability, and good schools.

Writing in Land Lines, a publication of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, McMillen acknowledges that teardowns can in some cases harm neighborhood character and reduce the stock of affordable housing. But they bring benefits too:

  • Property taxes: "Additional revenue from high-priced replacement houses is often quite welcome."

  • Aesthetics: "Not all teardown buildings are historic, architecturally significant, or mourned when they are demolished. Some teardowns are simply eyesores. Some of the new houses being built today will eventually be viewed as historically significant properties in their own right. Once entire blocks are rebuilt, the new housing no longer looks out of place. It is surprising to discover how stark and incompatible some properties built in the early 1900s appear in historic photographs taken before trees grew and the neighborhood filled in with similar houses."

  • Urban policy: "Teardowns may help to curb sprawl. [Moe disputes this point, but not very well.] One reason people move to the urban fringe is to build a new house in a contemporary construction style. Allowing people to tear down a small, outdated house and replace it with a modern house may induce them to stay in centrally located areas."

FYI links: There is a anti-teardown Yahoo group (mostly suburban), and a real-estate site for buyers and sellers. Neither one seems terribly frenetic. McMillen's technical article, coauthored with Richard Dye, is forthcoming in the Journal of Urban Economics. A draft as of May 26 is here for those thirsty for technicalities.

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