DC to Elderly Couple: Stay in Your Basement

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured a great piece, “Human Dignity Also Needs to Be Preserved,” from columnist Marc Fisher about a DC couple being nothing short of victimized by the DC government. Fisher tells the story of Cornelius and Merry Lucas, a disabled elderly couple who have been unable to use the upper floors of their home because the DC governments historic preservation laws have prevented them from building a ramp onto their porch.  Why?  According to the DC government because “repeating porches of similar height and depth create a notable pattern and rhythm.”

As a result, the Lucases remain stuck in their basement rooms, able to come and go only through a back door that opens onto an alleyway.

This story struck a chord with me not only because it’s outrageous on face, but also because my brother Jason was born with cerebral palsy, making him unable to walk and limiting much of his mobility. Thanks in large part to modern technology, my brother leads a very good life. He has a successful career in the financial sector, he’s a HAM radio enthusiast, a downhill and water skier, and owns his own home. Modifying that home makes up a large part of what makes him able to lead his life.

Not only does my brother’s front porch have a ramp, he also has a ramp leading into his garage, a stair-lift to transport him to his basement, a roll-in shower, extra-wide doors, lowered counters, and a large assortment of bars and railings to help him do the simple thing we take for granted. Without the ability to modify his home, my brother would lead a very different, and much poorer life.

Thankfully, my brother bought a house in the suburbs of Minneapolis and not in the city itself. That’s because Minneapolis, like DC, has historic preservation laws governing large swaths of the city.

While attending the University of Minnesota, I lived in a former fraternity house that was subject to such laws. That’s right, there was an historic “frat row” district that was to remain untouched by the hands of time. Before any modification could be made to the house we had to run our plans through the historic preservation counsel, adding design costs to every project and forcing us to plan spring renovation project in the early fall.

Not only was this law an inconvenience, but it also robbed the organizations that occupied the house of their most valuable asset, their houses. The once valuable campus-adjacent property of many fraternities was rendered nearly worthless as the prospect of selling the property to the University or other developers became an impossibility overnight. No one would want to take on the tremendous burden of keeping up one of these aging buildings when other land around campus was available for the construction of modern buildings.

Without the ability to sell their homes or borrow against their once higher value in order to expand off-campus, many fraternities were left with few options but to scrape by trying to keep their houses–many built before electrical wiring and indoor plumbing were common–in good repair.

The ultimate irony of the historic fraternity district is that it will likely result in the failure of many fraternities, leaving behind perfectly preserved empty shells of the organizations that were once a vibrant part of campus life.

But then again, historic districts aren’t meant to serve the people living in the historic homes. Rather, they’re meant to serve elites who consider themselves history-buffs, but who don’t want to pay the bill. Ultimately, keeping up an old house is the domain of the wealthy. Remember This Old House?

Bob Villa wasn’t interviewing blue-collar every-men restoring 19th century three-story Victorian homes, these guys were rolling in it. But we should be glad that these wealthy home restorers are around. They provide a free public good in the form of appreciating their old house. But should we force poor row-house dwellers to do the same?

Keeping up an old house is simply not a luxury that everyone can afford. For people like my brother and the Lucases, not having control over your own home is no small problem, it threatens your very quality of life. History is valuable, to be sure, but human life is more valuable than any row-house porch or historic fraternal building.

How the government of DC could repeatedly deny the Lucases their ramp is beyond comprehension. How could anyone in good conscience reply to the pleadings of an elderly couple with trite condescension about the “rhythm” of porches?

If you have a history fetish, offer to buy the Lucases home, otherwise don’t impose your tastes on them at the expense their quality of life.

This is government at its worst.