Soundings

Norah Vincent
Cracking the Code
Spring 1999

Building codes have long hindered the revitalization of older cities. The codes tend to require developers who'd like to rehabilitate old buildings to redo doors, hallways, or windows because they don't meet rigid modern standards—sometimes by just a few inches—even though the structures are usually safe. Rehabilitation thus often means ground-up rebuilding, which can cost developers far more than building something new and leaving older buildings to rot.

New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs has a solution. The state's old code demanded a complete rehab of an older building, even if minor repairs were all a developer or owner wanted. The new Rehabilitation Subcode—the first of its kind in the nation—makes it cheaper to refurbish old buildings, most of them located in urban centers like Jersey City and Trenton, by establishing more flexible standards, so a developer won't have to replace, say, a perfectly fine window just because it's four inches too narrow.

One year after the subcode's ratification, New Jersey's urban centers have seen some of their oldest buildings given a new lease on life. Jersey City's 203 Academy Street, for example, stood vacant for years before the subcode made its rehab financially feasible. Now, the top three floors of the four-story building comprise 24 units of senior-citizen housing, and the bottom floor serves as a day-care center. The building's owners saved nearly $400,000 renovating under the new rules. In Trenton's historic Mill Hill, the subcode made feasible the conversion of a 1920s garage—boarded up for two decades—into a private residence.

Half of New Jersey's $7 billion construction industry is rehab work, so future savings—and neighborhood revitalization—promise to be considerable.

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