Frequently Asked Questions

Think rehab isn't a good fit for your affiliate? Read this FAQ to learn about how preservation can help your organization achieve its mission.

Q: What is historic preservation?

A: Historic preservation is the practice of conserving important, meaningful, useful and beautiful buildings and landscapes so that they can be understood, used, and appreciated by future generations.

Preservation is centrally concerned with the economic, environmental, and cultural sustainability of such places because these values define the importance of place and make viable their survival. 
 Historic preservation is more than conserving the finest works of architecture; preservation protects places that embody the way people have lived and what they have accomplished and experienced, and ensures the long-term sustainability of communities by supporting the built environment they live in.  Preservation is concerned with decaying urban neighborhoods, the homes of ex-presidents and everything in between—it all matters.     

Q: Is there a difference between rehabilitation and historic preservation?

A:  Yes.  Rehabilitation and historic preservation are not the same thing, but they are closely related.  Rehabilitation is the process of restoring a building to a good condition suitable for modern use, habitation, and comfort.  In addition to this, preservation of a building assumes reasonable efforts to maintain the integrity of a building’s extant original features, including windows, architectural details, materials, and finishes.  It is common for rehabilitation work to achieve historic preservation objectives; projects chosen for rehab are often selected because of the opportunity to accomplish preservation goals.

Q: My affiliate is considering a rehab.  Is this house actually historic?

A:   A house doesn’t have to be a historic landmark to have historic value.  If your house isn’t designated as “historic”, a better question might be “Is my house worth preserving?”  If your property is well built, is in an older, walkable neighborhood, or is near transit, infrastructure, and other neighborhoods, the answer might be “yes.”

If your house doesn’t rise to the level of local historic district or landmark designation , it may still have historic value and merit rehabilitation.  Even modest older homes in existing neighborhoods reflect the architecture and planning of their period and contribute to a sense of neighborhood cohesion that is difficult to recreate.  
Moreover, conserving an older home in an existing neighborhood is a sustainable act that contributes to revitalization.  Older neighborhoods are an asset to homeowners because they provide very specific advantages:  quality housing stock is durable over time; established neighborhoods provide mature trees and landscape, and often a variety of housing types and architectural styles; proximity to services and transit reduces reliance on cars and empowers people to get around affordably.  Further, foreclosure and abandonment destabilized neighborhoods; targeting preservation to at-risk neighborhoods can be a stabilizing influence on the market and community.

Habitat affiliates’ ability to concentrate their builds and rehabs in existing neighborhoods can have a tremendous stabilizing impact.     

Q: With whom do I have to deal if my building is historic?

A:  Your building is only subject to historic preservation regulation if it is in a local historic district or is a local landmark.  It is entirely possible for an old building to have historic value but not be subject to regulation.  To find out the status of your property, check with your city’s planning department or historic preservation commission.  Preservation regulations differ by city but either of these departments will be able to provide you with the information you need.  For more information on local ordinances and regulation, see the National Trust’s Preservation Ordinance FAQ.

If your property is subject to regulation, the planning department or historic preservation commission will be able to provide you with information about compliance with local preservation codes.  For most exterior projects including window replacement, constructing or removing additions, or changing details, you will need to submit an application to the local preservation commission before proceeding.  The agency will have staff that will help you achieve your rehabilitation goals while working within the spirit of the historic district.

Local preservation commissions are the primary regulator—if any—that most Habitat affiliates will deal with during rehabs.  The chart below depicts the roles of other government agencies in historic preservation.  For more information on state and federal preservation regulations, see the question “What is the National Register and what does it mean for my house?”

Preservation Organizations by Level of Government and Location

   Private Sector  Government Sector
National National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Action (Lobby) National Park Service, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
State Statewide Historic Preservation Organizations (nonprofit: i.e. Preservation Virginia) State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO's), Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO's)
Local Local Historic Preservation Organizations (Nonprofit: i.e. DC Preservation League), Main Street Organizations (nonprofit) Local Preservation Commissions (i.e. Board of Architectural Review, Historic Preservation Commission) etc.

Q: What is the National Register and what does it mean for my house?

A:   While local preservation laws designate and regulate historic property in the U.S., there is also a National Register of Historic Places (and in most states, state registers) that provides honorific recognition of historic significance at the national (and state) levels.  Refer to the chart below for a summary of benefits and restrictions for each.  The National Register is an official list maintained by the National Park Service (NPS), and listing imposes no limitations on property rights —but it does unlock access to certain state and federal tax credits.  Use of these credits does require that performance standards be met, but those standards are usually more than offset by the federal 20% investment tax credit.  Visit the National Park Service tax incentives website for further information.  These incentives are usually facilitated by your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in cooperation with the NPS.

If a property included in the National Register is impacted (i.e. rehabbed) as part of an undertaking that uses federal—and in some cases, state—funding, including HUD dollars, Community Development Block Grants, or other NPS money, a review process called “Section 106” (of the National Historic Preservation Act) is triggered.  For an example of how Section 106 review affected a Habitat project, visit our Cherry Street, Winston Salem, NC case study, which provides an audio explanation delivered by a preservation planner from the City of Winston Salem. 

Because National Register listing activates eligibility for financial incentives but does not otherwise impose significant regulation, it may be to your advantage to work with your local preservation commission or SHPO to pursue this recognition.  

Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County, located in Bridgeport, Connecticut, received $350,000 in state historic homeowner tax credits for a 12-unit historic rehab it completed in 2010.  The affiliate sold these tax credits and used the proceeds to offset the cost of the project.

In order to receive tax credits for rehabilitation projects, preservation work must satisfy the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which codify treatment of historic properties--your SHPO and NPS can provide details.  

Summary of Benefits and Restrictions for Historic Recognition

   Benefits  Restrictions
National Register of Historic Places

Honorific designation only, unlocks federal rehabilitation tax credits and grantss from NPS

None * Tax Credit projects and udnertakigns that use federal funding must meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards
State Register of HIstoric Places
Honorific designation only, unlocks rehabilitation tax credits (where applicable) None * Tax Credit projects and udnertakigns that use federal funding must meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards
Local Designation
Maintains community charachter, contribures to local pride Alternation to destignated property must be approved by a local historic preservation commission, which will issue a "certificate of appropriateness for work."

Q: Do preservationists really care about Habitat for Humanity or affordable housing?

A:  While there is a common perception that preservation is concerned with big houses and fancy neighborhoods, all histories matter and deserve to be the focus of historic preservation.  This includes both modest and elaborate homes, both dense urban neighborhoods and small town streets.  Beyond the conservation of bricks and mortar, preservation is concerned with supporting and creating sustainable, stable communities that are economically viable, safe, and attractive.  This “neighborhood conservation” includes preserving different housing types and the affordability that goes with them.   

Habitat affiliates interested in quality affordable housing are a natural partner for municipalities and preservationists hoping to revitalize communities because of the unique opportunity to combine the two goods.  Habitat provides expertise in acquisition, construction, financing and finding families; statewide, local, and national preservation organizations can provide technical assistance, guidance on neighborhood planning and conservation, and even funding.

Q: If preservationists get involved in my project, won't they insist on preserving historic features regardless of the time, trouble, or expense involved?

A:  Neighborhood and community revitalization are among the fundamental goals of historic preservation.  Preservationists recognize that keeping existing houses and neighborhoods affordably occupied is an important condition of stable, sustainable neighborhoods.  In many cases, partnering with preservation groups is a way to advance, not impede, an affordable rehabilitation project because of the technical assistance, funding streams, financing options, and access to professionals and volunteers that these groups can provide.  

South Carolina’s Charleston Habitat for Humanity was able to undertake the substantial rehabilitation of a historic home (not located in a historic district) in 2010 because of additional funds provided by the City’s Department of Housing and Community Development and the Historic Charleston Foundation.  Historic Charleston Foundation provided $59,000 to cover the cost of exterior preservation work on the deteriorated building.  This partnership enabled Habitat to serve an elderly individual and her family who, although they were in need, would not qualify for a new home and could not afford rehabilitation costs.  For more information on this project, view our case studies.

Habitat affiliates working in historic districts have found innovative ways to meet preservation standards while keeping projects cost-competitive with new construction.  From construction volunteers who bring energy, passion, and a willingness to learn, to an affiliate who negotiated a bulk discount on new low-e windows with an historic profile, to tax-advantaged rehab, Habitats nationwide have demonstrated that resourcefulness and a partnership mentality can meet and exceed preservation goals.         

Q: What if my affiliate doesn’t have the capacity to do a historic rehab? 

A:  Some Habitat affiliates have found that historic rehabs become possible with the help of strategic partnerships and a reconsideration of operating assumptions.  Local and statewide preservation organizations, as well as the National Trust, have provided partnership, funding, technical assistance, design support, and ongoing consultation with Habitat affiliates completing rehabs.  City economic development, planning, and historic preservation departments have also provided significant funding streams and technical assistance during historic rehab projects. 

Habitat affiliate executives and construction managers have found that passionate volunteers  have a capacity to take on preservation projects from refinishing historic doors to reconstructing complex Victorian dormers.  Futher, with the pro bono help of architects, engineers, and other professionals, as well as selective use of subcontractors, even complex problems can be solved within Habitat’s budget and capacity constraints.  View our case studies for more information. 

Q: Most of the houses we tear down are ugly and dilapidated, and not historic. Why bother?

A:  Houses don’t need to be exceptional works of architecture or have national significance to be worth preserving.  Their contribution to familiar neighborhood fabric and use of existing materials are major benefits in themselves.  Moreover, often basic condition issues—peeling paint, broken windows, boarded-up doors—conceal a well-built structure whose quality and size could not be recreated affordably today, but whose rehabilitation can be cost-competitive with new construction.  

Even when rehabilitation exceeds the cost of new construction, reuse offers the advantage that materials are being recycled instead of being hauled to a landfill only to be replaced with cheaper modern counterparts.  The cost of demolition should not only be measured in dollars, but also in the loss of embodied energy, the loss of capitalized resources, accumulation in landfills and damage to neighborhood viability and character.

Rehabilitation of existing housing stock will not always be the right fit for Habitat affiliates, but it will often be a logical tool and fitting complement to new construction, as well as a powerful means to achieve neighborhood revitalization goals.

Addressing the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings, in a 2008 paper for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Allan Mallach, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, provided the following chart to summarize the complex planning and community impact considerations involved in this special type of building (Source: How to spend $3.92 Billion: Stabalizing Neighborhoods by Addressing Forclosed and Abandoned Properties, Allan Mallach Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, 2008)

  Demolish Preserve
Quality of Building

The building is obsolete, by virtue of small size or physical character

The building is attractive, of high quality, or of architectural or historic value.
Neighborhood Fabric
The building is located in an area where hte neighborhood fabric has largely bene lsot through incompatible land uses and demolitions The building is located in an area where hte neighborood fabric is still strong and its physical presence contributes to that fabric.
Re-use potential of lot created through demolition
Demolition will contribute to the opportunity so carry out a comprehensive rebuilding or revitalization strategy of the area The demolition of the building will result in a potentially unusable vacant lot, rahter htan an opportunity for redevelopment or revitalization.
Nuisance level of property in present condition The nuisance impact of the building and the harm that it is doing in its present condition, int he absence of immediate reuse potential outweigh the benefits of saving it for possible future reuse. The reuse potential of the building, evne if not immediate, outweighs the current harm that it does in its present condition, particularly if enhanced efforts are made ot secure or stabilize the property.

Q: Our homeowners care about having a roof overhead—isn’t historic preservation a luxury?

A:  Rehabbed housing provides homeowners with benefits far beyond the appearance of their home.  Because older homes are often located in well planned neighborhoods close to downtowns, Habitat homeowners may find themselves able to walk or take transit to work, the grocery store, and other services.  Reconditioned older housing is more sustainable and can require less maintenance over time.  Old neighborhoods are often strong neighborhoods, reinforced by existing institutions like churches, businesses, and community groups.  Moreover, Habitat families living in rehabbed housing own homes that fit in with neighboring architecture and do not stand out as “special” projects.

Rehabbing houses can also make accessible to Habitat partner families a very high quality housing product—not attainable only to the wealthy.  Similarly, Habitat volunteers enjoy a sense of pride in successfully tackling work on handsome or unusual architectural elements, like the reconstruction of eyebrow dormers on William Street in Bridgeport, CT.   

Q: Historic preservation is too expensive, time consuming, and bureaucratic.  Why bother?

A:  Rehabilitation costs will necessarily vary depending on the size, features, and condition of the building, and not every older building will be a candidate for Habitat rehab.  While the process of obtaining city permits (when they’re necessary), approval of tax credits, or of remediating lead can be time-consuming, rehabilitation achieves neighborhood revitalization and sustainability goals that add distinct value to a project.  Moreover, rehabilitation often delivers a higher quality housing product than does new construction.

Many Habitat affiliates that undertake historic rehabs do so in partnership with cities and private organizations, allowing multiple groups to leverage funding pools on larger projects than they could otherwise take on.  Further, some affiliates have found that dealing with existing owner-occupied homes or rehabbing multi-unit buildings allows them to serve families of different sizes and ages than they otherwise could, expanding the reach of their programming.      

Q: Dilapidated historic houses are too large, expensive to maintain & heat, and are in bad areas.  Why not tear them down and start fresh?

A:  Not all older buildings meet the size requirements for single-family Habitat homes, but there are creative solutions to this problem.  Very large homes can be divided into condominiums (see Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County), and midsize houses can support sensitive additions that add enough square footage to create duplexes or triplexes.

Although one-time rehabilitation costs of historic homes sometimes exceed the cost of new construction, rehabbed historic buildings can be more durable over time, with a less frequent need to replace cheaper modern materials such as vinyl siding and windows or asphalt shingles.  Rehab costs can vary widely by building and depend on size, features and condition; these costs should be one among several considerations that impact a final decision about whether to rehabilitate or build new.

Older buildings can be made dramatically more energy efficient without major expenditures and without jeopardizing their character.  Charleston, South Carolina Habitat for Humanity achieved Earthcraft certification for a historic rehab it completed in the fall of 2010.  For more information, visit the National Trust’s Weatherization Guide for Older & Historic Buildings.

That historic houses in poor condition can be found in “bad areas” is often a result of foreclosure and abandonment.  Rehabbing homes in disinvested neighborhoods—particularly when done at a large scale as Habitat is able to do—can be a stabilizing influence.  Not every disinvested neighborhood is the right choice for rehabilitation since it makes most sense to target places that can achieve sustainable stabilization.  This is a function of how close a neighborhood is to market recovery, how intact its physical and social fabric is, and how feasible it is to acquire and assemble land.  Historic properties shouldn’t be seen as features of disinvested area; they should be understood as a leading opportunity to anchor stabilization and revitalization efforts by improving familiar local features and eliminating blight.               

Q: What financial incentives are available for Habitat affiliates to use in rehab projects?

A: Depending on your location, there are funding opportunities from federal, state, and local government, as well as nonprofit groups (including the National Trust) and foundations.  To begin your search, visit the National Trust’s Find Funding page and contact your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and statewide and local preservation organizations.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants can also be a significant source of funding for Habitat affiliates, and many cities provide HUD HOME funds to Habitat affiliates. 

Q: Where can my affiliate find more information and technical assistance to complete a rehab?

A:   Your first points of contact should include local preservation organizations, your local preservation commission, your statewide historic preservation nonprofit, and State Historic Preservation Office.  For example, the Charleston, SC Habitat for Humanity has partnered with the City of Charleston and local preservation organization the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) to rehabilitate an historic home there.  HCF provided technical assistance and funds from its Neighborhood Impact Initiative program.  For more information on this and other case studies, view our case studies.         

Q: Have other Habitat affiliates done historic rehab work?

A: Yes.  Habitat affiliates around the United States have undertaken rehabilitation projects of varying scale and complexity.  To learn more about these case studies, view our case studies.