Region Focus

Spring 2005

Homeward Bound

Housing markets work just fine for most people. But certain markets in the Fifth District aren’t producing homes and apartments that working families can afford
By Charles Gerena

From Brownfields to Brownstones

Despite the efforts of state and federal officials to encourage the cleanup and reuse of brownfields, the Fifth District is still littered with defunct industrial sites that are too small or too poorly located to make them attractive for commercial development. In areas near booming housing markets, however, these sites could provide much-needed space for residential development.

Brownfields have characteristics that make them good candidates for residential reuse. First, many brownfields are in rapidly developing metropolitan areas where population growth often strains against limitations in the supply of land and housing. Second, these sites usually have good access to utility lines and transportation infrastructure. Finally, some are adjacent to existing residential neighborhoods.

On the minus side, brownfields have a legacy of industrial contamination. Families may be concerned about living in a house where the backyard once contained spilt fuel and other hazardous materials. The costs of cleaning up a brownfield for residential use can be higher than the costs for an industrial project since the standards are higher.

Another challenge with placing residential development on brownfields is location. Some sites have historic structures like textile mills with architectural character that can appeal to middle- and upper-income people. But for the most part, these groups continue to migrate out of urban areas and older suburbs where brownfields reside. “If the interest is in using brownfield redevelopment to lure empty-nester suburban residents back to cities and to stop sprawl, then the results are not encouraging,” noted a 2001 article in Fannie Mae Foundation’s quarterly journal, Housing Policy Debate.

Instead, brownfields with minimal contamination could provide housing options for those who earn below the area median income but are unwilling or unable to move to the suburbs. "Siting affordable housing on former brownfields can trigger equity concerns because low-income people, if given a choice, might not wish to live there," notes Danielle Schopp in her October 2003 report on brownfield redevelopment for the Northeast-Midwest Institute. "However, cleaning up and redeveloping vacant property as affordable housing can create an asset for low-income communities and encourage other commercial and residential investment there."

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