I had a conversation recently that was quite illuminating. Jay Gardner, Community Development Director at Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation showed me through the Langston Hughes house at 2266 East 86th Street and explained their plans for the house.
The approximate cost of the renovation would be $70,000-$90,000. Gardner explained that this includes replacing the plumbing, wiring, furnace, new roof, and major work in the kitchen and bathroom. It also includes replacing the plaster with drywall, as it has significant damage in some places. He further explained that while the railing and bannister would be retained, the trim would probably be replaced with new trim milled to match the existing. They also planned to remove the vinyl siding and address the wood siding underneath it. If it needed serious work, it would be replaced with Hardie Board.
At this point, I began to feel uncomfortable. With all these details were removed, what would remain of this historic house? Mr. Gardner explained that the trim and walls had to be addressed one way or another, because of lead paint issues. Further, stripping lead paint from woodwork is time and labor intensive, and therefore expensive. Fairfax Renaissance can't afford to lose huge amounts of money for the sake of historical perfection.
The same arguments can be made with regard to the removal of the plaster and the replacement of the siding.
Do I like this? No. Is there any other way? No. Fairfax Renaissance is trying to be historically sensitive. They're doing their best to maintain historical integrity while still keeping these houses at prices that people can afford. They're doing better than 95%+ of the people rehabbing houses in the city, and for that, I respect them.
It's simply too labor intensive for anyone other than an individual to rehab a house to the standards we'd like to see upheld. If you've ever spent time stripping paint off of woodwork or doing some other detail job on an old house, you know this to be true. While commercial rehabbers should be held to a certain standard, there's just no way they can do the level of detail work that we'd like to see.
There's a very big upside to this. It means that if you're willing to pour a ton of labor into one of these old houses, you can live someplace truly incredible, without a huge outlay of cash. This is especially true in the greater Cleveland area, where there are many houses with a lot of potential at bargain basement prices.
We always talk about how we'd like to see this or that house saved, with the hope that someone will do it. "Someone" isn't good enough. If we can't, for whatever reason, save these houses ourselves, we need to actively work to find people who can. If there's a house on your street or in your neighborhood that deserves to be saved, talk with your neighbors and figure out a way to work with them to bring it back from the brink.
We have to save these houses. No one else can afford to.