Pilot program could help Duluth restore old homes | Duluth News Tribune


Duluth’s large inventory of old homes is sometimes considered a handicap, but At Large City Councilor Zack Filipovich views it as a potential opportunity.

Filipovich hopes to launch a new pilot program that could connect owners of historically and architecturally significant houses with funds that could be used to fuel renovations. Toward that end, he approached Keith Hamre, Duluth’s director of planning and construction services, last fall.

“I talked to him about using historic renovation as a vehicle to help incentivize folks to fix up their houses, using a reduction in building permit fees as a way to do that,” Filipovich told fellow councilors, describing the germ of an idea the gave birth to the initiative.

Last week, the Duluth City Council unanimously voted to authorize city staff to waive up to a total of $10,000 in fees in support of the project.

Hamre said he will seek additional funds, using the city’s $10,000 commitment as a local match to leverage up to $18,000 in the form of a Certified Local Government Grant and up to $40,000 in the form of a Minnesota Legacy Grant. Those grant applications are in process and should be submitted in March. Duluth should know by May whether state and federal funding for its historic home renovation initiative has been approved.

Up until now, only owners of commercial buildings and multi-family rental properties have been able to access state and federal historic tax credits. Owners of single-family homes have been ineligible, Hamre explained.

“So we looked at: How could we help low-income households? How could we help single-family, owner-occupied households look at renovating their houses?” he said.

Duluth already has completed seven surveys of neighborhoods to identify historically or architecturally significant structures that could potentially be eligible.

Hamre said city staff plan to turn to Duluth’s Heritage Preservation Commission to further define the exact criteria that will be used to determine what properties qualify for assistance.

The initial round of funding should enable the city to assist 10 to 15 homeowners during the first year of the pilot program, Hamre predicts.

The city could waive up to $500 in building permit fees for each qualified property.

In addition to providing financial aid, Hamre said the program would provide homeowners guidance and technical assistance to help with historically consistent upgrades and improvements.

Hamre acknowledged some homeowners may be leery of having their houses recognized as historically or architecturally significant.

“If your house was identified as being potentially eligible, a lot of people would get worried about restrictions, and we wanted to not look at this from the restrictive side but what are the incentives we could provide to create more of a positive side to it,” he said.

Hamre said the additional state and federal funds the city aims to leverage could be used to develop preservation plans for specific properties and to potentially help cover some of the capital expenses involved in executing those plans.

The cost of maintaining or restoring original features using historically consistent materials sometimes can drive up costs, and a little financial help can make a big difference.

Hamre said the wealth of historic homes in Duluth could open a door for the proposed pilot project to help preserve that asset.

“The blessing of having an older housing stock is that it qualifies as historic. And there are a lot of neat architectural styles out there to be preserved. Getting some assistance on how to do that and do it well helps preserve that character,” he said.