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Affordable Elegance: Tax Credits Encourage Development of Historic Buildings

The grand brick building in Fort Wayne, Ind., exudes character and elegance, from its 18-foot-high ceilings to its marble staircase and fine dark woodwork. Inside and out, the Meetinghouse at St. Peter looks like a residence built for doctors, lawyers and rich dowagers.

But the tenants who wake up here each morning include a teacher, a former city bus driver and a retired grocery store clerk. And their imposing early-20th-century residence was built as a Catholic elementary school.

"I was the first one to rent here, and I love it," says Ruby Bonner, 61, who walks from St. Peter to her job as a preschool teacher at a nearby church. "This is a beautiful place. I never want to leave."

The three-story building, located in a revitalized neighborhood near Fort Wayne's downtown, has been carefully renovated—its historic details preserved—as 38 apartments. The one- and two-bedroom units, which went on the market in 2005, are affordably priced and outfitted with an entrance ramp, grab bars in the bathrooms and other amenities for older residents.

To qualify for St. Peter, tenants must be at least 55 years old, and their income can't exceed 60 percent of the average local income. "In any community, that income group includes a lot of older people on fixed incomes," says Christopher Finlay, president of Finlay Development, the Florida firm that transformed St. Peter.

Standing in St. Peter's majestic community room, which was an auditorium before underenrollment forced the school to close in 1972, Bonner, an ebullient woman in a brightly patterned caftan, remembers the New Year's party she gave there, inviting 14 relatives for black-eyed peas, baked ham and fresh pear cobbler.

"Everybody loved this room. It really catches your eye and makes you glad," she says, smiling.

St. Peter—beautiful, affordable and convenient—is the kind of housing that savvy communities across the country can create [see box "Save an Old Building"]. And it's much needed: More than 1 million affordable apartments were lost in the last decade, and according to research recently released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the percentage of renters paying more than a third of their income for housing has grown from 40 percent in 2000 to 49 percent. And rents nationwide will increase on average about 5 percent in 2007—for a third straight year, reports Marcus & Millichap, a California real estate investment firm.

St. Peter tenants benefit from two federal tax-credit programs—one that encourages developers to build affordable housing and another that encourages them to preserve historic buildings. Used jointly, the two programs can produce impressive results: one building, two good deeds for the community. Under the federal programs, states set their own priorities and can even require that projects be built specifically for older residents.

"With this new Congress we see the possibility of a new interest and added resources" for the affordable-housing tax credit, says Deborah Burkart, vice president of the nonprofit National Equity Fund in Los Angeles. The tax credit program, which has helped create more than 1 million apartments in the last 20 years, "has strong bipartisan support," she says.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has expressed interest in putting housing on the 2007 agenda. And Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., a member of the influential Republican Main Street Partnership, says the tax credit program "can play a critical role in helping provide affordable housing for America's seniors."

In fact, projects like St. Peter—which Indiana approved because it was specifically designed for aging residents—help older people remain at home longer and keep them out of expensive nursing institutions, experts say.

Putting together an affordable-housing deal "is a lengthy process that can take several years," Burkart says. "But you wind up with amazing results."

Especially when that housing creatively reuses an older building. From a tobacco warehouse in Danville, Va., to an office building in Big Rapids, Mich., to a former hotel in Fort Collins, Colo., historic buildings with all manner of charming quirks and qualities have delighted older tenants. In St. Peter, for example, residents enter their apartments through a tall classroom door with a glass transom.

"My first apartment here was a one-bedroom with a big blackboard running along one wall of the living room," says Bonner, who has since moved to a two-bedroom. "My grandkids loved it. They'd come over and draw on that thing for hours."

Since its founding in 1976, the historic rehabilitation tax credit program has created more than 364,000 housing units, 85,622 of them with affordable rents. Indiana and 25 other states have added their own incentives that augment the federal program. To qualify for preservation tax credits, developers must preserve the character of buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places; these must be at least 50 years old and have historic or architectural significance.

Often conveniently located in urban areas, these old buildings can be part of modern housing solutions. St. Peter faces a public library, a new Head Start center for preschoolers and sheltered bus stops. Churches dot the neighborhood, dominated by older houses, and a medical center is just blocks away.

"People want to stay in their communities, be where the action is," says developer Finlay. "There's more of a demand for city housing. We'll see more and more redevelopment of historic buildings like this one."

Preserving older buildings for older residents taps into some of the deepest roots in the community and brings benefits both tangible and intangible. Carolyn Guthier, 60, a former checkout clerk, went to school in the building she now calls home. For her, the hallways and doors of St. Peter open onto one memory after another, adding to the building's appeal. And while its high ceilings and big windows can mean higher heating bills, she still loves the very ethos of the place.

"I remember favorite teachers, and all the coats on the hooks along the walls," she says, moving through the wide corridor. "And the wonderful smell of the macaroni and cheese they used to make for lunch—it was my favorite. It came with buttered bread and was just perfect."

Guthier and her husband lease their two-bedroom apartment for $491. They moved there from a tiny $300-a-month one-bedroom apartment in an old house where they went to bed frightened each night: "We could hear gunshots outside, and there were always fights in the street."

St. Peter, she says, "is like heaven."

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