The Public Benefit of Historic Tax Credits

By John Burse, FAIA, LEED AP, Principal at Mackey Mitchell Architects

This column was originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal.


As a recipient of Missouri’s state historic tax credit, I contributed insights to the governor’s committee on taxation. I was consequently surprised to read the committee’s finding that “no member of the public provided a plausible explanation of the public benefit” from historic tax credits.

The dividend reinvesting in the tired neighborhoods of our state’s small towns and abandoned cities pays vast benefits. As the greenest building is the one that already exists, taking advantage of existing structure reduces pollution, contains sprawl and preserves landscape. At the scale of the neighborhood, the investment of home ownership across a spectrum of generations and income levels is a fundamental building block to creating sustainably healthy, safe and vibrant communities—public benefits for sure!

I received a state historic tax credit by renovating a vacant, crumbling dwelling in Old North St. Louis. The home was on a block of similarly abandoned structures, and required more work than real estate appraisal comps could justify a bank loan to cover. There was a significant chasm between what I could get for a loan—about $80,000—and the work that needed to be done—about $350,000 to $400,000. Making the project happen required six years of “sweat equity,” something most banks do not typically tolerate.

Having completed the project, reaping the tax credit helped defray risk. Equally important, the tax credit made me feel the state was a partner in what I was doing. Missouri believed in the power of what vibrant historic neighborhoods in its cities and small towns could do for the state, and wanted to encourage risk-taking and investment.

Over more than 10 years of living in Old North, countless other families and individuals were attracted to and invested in the area, many using the historic tax credit. I saw the lights gradually turned back on down my block and across Old North. This energy helped leverage nearly $55 million in additional investment in an inner-city neighborhood that had witnessed decades of decline. The results were astounding: Old North St. Louis posted a 30 percent gain in population; the results garnered national recognition for smart growth, affordable housing and historic preservation.

With these experiences in mind, in May of this year I offered the governor’s committee suggestions to improve the program:

  • Remove the cap. The current cap discourages being able to depend on the availability of the credit and constrains and diminishes the amount of investment we could be seeing.

  • Within our region, there are neighborhoods where the market is well established. These are not the places that need the tax credit. It’s our forgotten communities that need the leg up, and the application of the state historic tax credits should be prioritized for jump starting momentum in those areas which need reinvestment the most.

Growing healthy neighborhoods from disinvested, abandoned ones is a public benefit. Reform ought to allow tools like this to be more focused on those places which would benefit the most from risk taking and bold investment. Prohibiting single-family development from using this tool is short sighted, as homeowners in particular have the greatest potential to reinvest in rebuilding healthy, stable and safe communities across Missouri.


John is originally from Canterbury, Connecticut. His passion is design which fosters community. He oversees the design for many higher-ed student life projects, including dining, residential halls, academic spaces and student centers. His area of expertise is student centers, where he applies his love for creating community. John’s leadership style is engaging, thoughtful and enjoyable and it emphasizes design as a collaborative journey.

His designs for student centers have been recognized by the Association of College Unions International’s Facility Design Award of Excellence. John is a frequent presenter at national and regional conferences for ACUI, ACUHO-I and SCUP. His experience includes planning and design of residence halls, dining centers, performing arts facilities and campuses.

John enjoys giving back to the community, helping to lead community development efforts of the nationally recognized Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, past chairmanship of the City’s Preservation Board. His leadership was recognized with a national AIA Young Architect’s Award, as well as a Focus St. Louis “What’s Right with the Region” award. He has been featured in Architectural Record, Competitions, Marketplace and Metropolis.

John Burse joined Mackey Mitchell Architects in 1997 and was named principal in 2005.


Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at