Preservationists Continue Campaign for Rehab Tax Credits


As part of an ongoing campaign to maintain and enhance the historic rehab tax credit, Preservation Action, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, and the National Trust sponsored an educational briefing on April 19 for congressional staff. Approximately 25 Hill staff, representing more than 16 congressional offices, heard from a variety of speakers about importance of the tax credit in making rehab projects economically viable.

According to Elizabeth Hebron, government relations director at the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, these briefings are a great way to communicate information to policy makers and congressional staff.  She explains that briefings “are a little bit like a mini-lecture on a specific topic. You generally have one to three experts presenting information in a style that’s understandable to a layperson audience.”

Hebron notes that the three sponsoring organizations “hope that in the future these congressional offices will realize the impact the credit has or can have on their districts and will consider sponsoring legislation to improve the credit and oppose any possible attempts to weaken the credit.”

In his opening remarks, Congressman Carnahan, a co-chair of the Preservation Caucus and a co-sponsor of the Historic Homeownership Revitalization Act of 2011, emphasized the economic benefits of the rehab credit noting that preservation brings new jobs into communities. “America's historic places define our national character and deserve our care and stewardship,” said Rep. Carnahan. “The value of these places is not solely in what they teach us about our history, but also in what they promise for our future. Heritage tourism, the commercial revitalization of forgotten downtowns, and the re-use of historic properties as affordable housing are only a few of the ways that history is coming alive in communities across the country. I will continue to support these important initiatives by championing legislation which supports and advances historic preservation throughout the country."

The standing-room-only crowd also heard from National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, and two developers who have been successful with using the credit to rehabilitate noteworthy projects. Other speakers included David Maloney from the D.C. State Historic Preservation Office, Andrew Potts from the law firm of Nixon Peabody, and Jennifer Westerbeck from U.S. Bank.

The developers, Lawrence Curtis of Winn Development in Boston and Thibault Manekin of Seawall Development in Baltimore, emphasized that most rehab projects would not be possible without the tax credit. However rather than seeing the credit as a handout to underwrite costly historic rehabilitations, they argue it is a much-needed subsidy to support projects in economically depressed areas that otherwise would be overlooked.  Preservationists can point to project after project where former factories, abandoned commercial buildings, and shuttered storefronts became, thanks to the credit, the first sign of economic vitality and rebirth.

Getting the stories in front of members of Congress continues to be the best way to illustrate the importance and success of the federal and state rehabilitation tax credits.  Eric Hein, president of Preservation Action, explains that next step is to follow up with attendees to make sure they have a list of the tax credit projects in their legislative district. This way they can associate local projects with the overall benefits of the program. “It is this type of educational activity that we hope will keep the tax credit off the chopping block should any tax reform proposals begin to look particularly threatening,” he said.

Thibault Manekin told the story of Baltimore’s Miller’s Court, an abandoned tin can factory in a transitional neighborhood.  His company rehabilitated the building for apartments which offer affordable rents for city school teachers, fire fighters, and police officers.  “These apartments are full of people doing work in the city,” he said, “but without the availability of the federal and state tax credits there is no way this project would have happened.

Lawrence Curtis noted that while the existing credit works well for larger projects, it is harder to use on smaller Main Street-type projects, even though these projects can have a major impact in a small town. The legislative changes in the proposed Creating American Prosperity through Preservation (CAPP) Act will make it easier for small communities to attract investment by increasing the amount of the credit from 20 percent to 30 percent for smaller deals. 

Action Steps

Tom Cassidy, vice president for government relations and public policy for the Trust, suggests the following action steps for preservation advocates.  “For more than 30 years, the federal historic tax credit has quietly and effectively re-energized neighborhoods and towns across America, while creating 2.2 million jobs and attracting $100 billion in private investment.  What we need now is for supporters to sign our pledge and join the effort of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its partners to keep historic preservation working; and ask your senator/representative to co-sponsor the CAPP Act. With your help, we can send a message to Capitol Hill to keep the historic tax credits intact and in communities where they create jobs, stimulate investment, and fuel local economies.”