Thursday, March 5, 2020

Historic Preservation Myths: Government Money

Homeowner Hannah Hanford at her home in Saranac Lake provided by AARCH

Myths pervade most aspects of life and they can be very persistent. Whether it’s “we only use 10% of our brain” or “George Washington had wooden teeth” these myths can be relatively harmless  – or they can really get in the way of true understanding and action.

Historic preservation has its own set of myths. Some originate from a grain of truth, many are outright wrong, and still others require a more nuanced understanding.

I run across these myths all the time in our work where we often push back with education, persuasion, and our own experiences. In this series of short essays, we take on the four most persistent and sometimes damaging myths about historic preservation in the Adirondacks. (This is the second of a four part series. You can find the first part here).

MYTH #2: If I buy an historic property, there is lots of government money available to help fix it up.

If only this were true! Unfortunately, public funding for historic preservation is fairly limited but, when it is available, it falls into two major categories. State and federal grants are available to municipalities and nonprofit organizations for historic preservation and community revitalization projects. At the federal level, there’s the Save America’s Treasures program, which has funded projects at Eagle Island, Camp Sagamore, Fort Ticonderoga, and Camp Santanoni over the past decade. At the state level, most of the historic preservation funding comes through the Environmental Protection Fund, which has funded projects at the Santanoni and the Frazier Bridge in Ticonderoga, to name a few. Grant funding for churches is also available through the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program. These programs are competitive but yield big results. Historic preservation and community revitalization projects funded in 2019 by these grant programs are listed in the News & Notes section of this newsletter.

The much bigger opportunity for financial support for historic preservation projects are the state and federal tax incentive programs. Let’s break these down into two project types – for homeowners and commercial properties. If you live in a National Register listed home and meet other program guidelines, you can receive a state income tax credit of up to 20% for qualified rehabilitation expenses through the New York State Historic Homeowner Tax Credit Program. In simple terms, for instance, if you were to spend $50,000 to rehabilitate your home, you could receive up to $10,000 in the form of an income tax credit. The minimum project size is $5,000 and the maximum credit is $50,000. The credit can be spread out over several years and one can use this tax credit program multiple times, if breaking a project into smaller pieces makes more sense.

Communities in the Adirondacks with the largest number of National Register listed buildings, and therefore in the best position to use this program, are Essex, Saranac Lake, Warrensburg, and Keeseville.

“In 2016 alone, Historic Tax Credit projects in New York State generated $45.6 million in state taxes, along with $53.9 million in local taxes and $142.9 million in federal taxes, more than any other state in the country.” Preservation League of New York State.

Owners of commercial or income-producing properties can take advantage of both the New York State Commercial Properties Tax Credit and the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit, which together provide a 40% tax offset for the cost of rehabilitation. Again, in simple terms, for a $100,000 investment, the owner would receive credits of $40,000, which can be spread out over several years. This can have a substantial impact on the viability of a project. The commercial program is a little different in that projects have to be generally much larger (meeting a “substantial” test) and not all property owners are able to effectively use the credits. Projects in the Adirondacks that have used the commercial tax credit incentives include Hotel Saranac, the Champlain Valley Senior Community in Willsboro, Hubbard Hall in Elizabethtown, and the Old Brewery in Keeseville.

For both programs, most rehabilitation expenses qualify, including exterior restoration, roofing, refinishing interiors, plumbing, energy efficiency improvements, masonry repair, and a host of other projects. All work plans need to be approved before work begins.

For more information about both tax credit programs, click here or call the NYS Historic Preservation Office at (518) 237-8643.

But remember – National Register listing is a prerequisite for both grants and tax credit program incentives. This is another great reason to get your historic property listed.

For more information about funding for historic preservation projects, click here.

Christine Bush and Nolan Cool contributed to this essay.

Photo: homeowner Hannah Hanford at her historic home in Saranac Lake.

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Steven Engelhart is the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the regional historic preservation organization of the Adirondack Park. AARCH's mission is to promote better public understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the region's built environment.

Among AARCH's many activities are: sponsoring a series of tours of historic places; offering workshops; giving slide presentations; publishing a newsletter; managing Camp Santanoni, advocating on behalf of threatened historic sites; and providing technical assistance to individuals, organizations and local governments.

Steven is a native of the region and has a BA from SUNY Plattsburgh and a MS in historic preservation from the University of Vermont. He is the author of Crossing the River: Historic Bridges of the AuSable River, a small book about bridges and local history of the AuSable Valley. He resides in Wadhams and loves to hike, canoe, read, play the banjo, explore the region, and spend time with family and friends.

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