The two small Victorian homes on 20th Street in Sherman Heights that Louise Torio and her husband Steve Veach have restored are examples of how the Mills Act can benefit the owners, their neighborhood, and the city. Available only for designated historic homes, the Mills Act is a contract between the City and the property owner that requires the home’s exterior be preserved in return for a property tax break. The savings can range from 20 to 70 percent.
“When Golden Hill and Sherman Heights were considered ‘bad’ areas to live,” Torio says, “it was the preservationists who moved in, fixed up, and revitalized the community.”
Torio and Veach’s residence is the Mary and W.C. Howard House, a 1110-square-foot Victorian Stick built circa 1885. The house next door is the Crellin Cottage, an 850-square-foot Folk Victorian built in 1887 and originally owned by Lillie and John Crellin.
Torio says that when they were shown the Howard House, in 1994, they arrived early to meet the realtor, only to see police raid the house and arrest a tenant, while roommates came screaming and crying out into the street. Torio and Veach still made an offer, but it was rejected. Six months later the owners reconsidered the offer.
The house was in pretty bad shape. The original wooden double-hung windows had been painted shut and covered with security bars, their glass replaced with Plexiglas. Plugging in appliances came with an electrical shock. The exterior was painted a storybook blue, lavender, and white. The interior, occupied for years by renters, was even worse. Upstairs, the hardwood floors were hidden under beat-up red shag carpeting; downstairs, linoleum had been glued on top. The plaster walls were covered in layers of wallpaper. The placed reeked of dog urine.
Torio and Veach began restoring the house: replacing the windows, stripping the paint, then using a historic color palette of amber gold, green, and brown to slowly bring the exterior to resemble its original appearance. During that time, the elderly owner of the cottage next door offered to sell them her home. They jumped at the chance.
“We didn’t know what we were in for,” Torio says.
“The house was so packed, the house inspector refused to charge us because he said he couldn’t see enough to evaluate the property. When our neighbor moved out, we had to remove several layers of carpeting, old furniture, room dividers that served as expanded closets, and the intensely dropped ceiling that caused my husband to [stoop] whenever we went into the house — the woman who lived there was really short.
“We opened up doors that were either nailed shut or covered over. When we actually got to see what we bought, it was really in awful shape. The house was covered with Tex-Cote, the porch had been enclosed, an illegal room and bathroom addition at the back of the house had to be demolished, and then I freaked about just how much work had to be done. We applied for the Mills Act right away when we bought this house.
“We’re not rich people, and we’re looking at costs,” Torio says. “If we didn’t have the Mills Act, we wouldn’t be doing this.”
Torio and Veach stopped working on the Howard House and put their energy into the Crellin Cottage. Torio says it took a year to scrape the Tex-Cote off the exterior. They opened up and reconfigured the porch. They replaced the aluminum windows with wooden ones. After a neighbor who had lived across the street for more than 50 years related how the original stained glass had been pulled out and sold, they put in six stained-glass windows. Their restoration work earned the couple an award in 2004 from the City of San Diego Historical Resources Board.
“My tax savings is a couple of grand a year,” Torio says. “I started restoring the house — you get into it, you see another thing that needs to be fixed, and then another thing. We undertook a total and complete foundation-to-roof restoration, put in eighty thousand dollars’ worth of effort, and used local trades people and put that money into the local economy. Nobody gave us a loan. It wasn’t a Mills Act loan; it was a Mills Act incentive.”
Nobody Wants to Live in a Museum
Preservationists such as Veach and Torio worry that the City, looking for new sources of revenue, could kill its Mills Act program with recently proposed changes to eligibility requirements.
The reforms, presented by city staffers on January 14 at a meeting of the Historical Resources Board’s Policy Subcommittee, sent a shockwave through the city’s preservationist community, made up of homeowners, realtors, consultants, and craftsmen. While some of the proposed changes are welcomed, such as increasing fees to cover the cost of staff time, the audience questioned whether the City was trying to undermine the program.
The reforms include “imposing a limit on the number of Mills Act contracts awarded each year” and limiting eligibility to houses that are threatened by deterioration or abandonment, that can be used for affordable housing, that are owned by someone who cannot afford to maintain the house, or that are located in areas “where the City is concentrating revitalization efforts.”
As the meeting ended and the room cleared out, attendees predicted that historic homes in San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods — Kensington, Point Loma, North Park, La Jolla, Sherman Heights, Loma Portal, Golden Hill, South Park, Mission Hills, and others — would be torn down for McMansions and cookie-cutter condos.
Then two months later, on March 19, the San Diego County Grand Jury released a report titled “History Hysteria: Historical Resources in the City of San Diego.”
The grand jury’s report was also an attack on the criteria used to designate historical buildings and on the number of Mills Act contracts approved every year. It called for an 18-month moratorium on accepting new applications; recommended that the city council, rather than the historical board, approve new contracts; and advocated restricting the number of examples of each housing type eligible for a contract. The report asked, “How many examples of Craftsman houses does the City really need?”