Since when did it become acceptable in the United States to dictate what a property owner can and cannot do with their real estate? The ongoing debate about the historical designation of downtown El Paso has forced me to ask this question once again. However, this is a question I’ve been asking myself for years when I finally understood homeowners associations and historical designators for buildings as well as the recent debacle concerning the US flag at Canutillo High School.

Let us take a step back for a moment from the rhetoric and let’s discuss this issue and why I believe it is important.

I have previously written that one of the most fundamental differences between personal economies in the United States compared to other countries, like Mexico, is that in the United States you can leverage your homestead into a business or an education. In my opinion, the “American Dream” is not home ownership but rather the ability to have a clear title to real estate that allows you to borrow against the equity of your home, or other real estate.

It took many years of hard work and families pooling together their savings to purchase a home in Mexico. It has somewhat become easier in recent years because mortgage options have increased although credit criteria is still extremely difficult to meet, however it is not as easy as in the US. Even after the recent mortgage crisis in the United States, a home can be purchased by a family with as little as $5,000 and access to mortgages are available even to those with bankruptcies in their immediate past.

The fundamental reason for this is that in the United States when you receive the deed to your house it is clear of encumbrances that could make your homestead lose its value immediately if they are not dealt with at the time of the purchase.

With clear titles on real estate, lenders have security over their loans via real estate and thus are more likely to loan money to purchase a home.

In Mexico, for example, real estate titles are notoriously weak and challengeable at any point by almost anyone. There are jurisdictions in Mexico where squatters can legally take over homes through squatters rights. Thus, lenders are reluctant to secure the majority of a loan through a home unless the borrower has invested a significant amount of their own money.

Additionally, it has always astonished me to listen to individuals, demand that a property owner adhere to certain standards just because they happen to own a home, or a building with “historical significance.”

First, “historical significance” is in the eye of the beholder. Consider the ongoing debate about the Confederate flag. Everyone can agree that the Confederate flag has significant historical relevance in the United States. Yet, many, including me, agree that it should not be flown over a state capitol building.

On the other hand, how about an old gas station on Route 66, should all of them be proclaimed as “historical significant” places that need to be preserved? El Paso used to be a historically significant city for “pleasures of the flesh,” yet almost everyone applauded when restricted covenants were enacted to shut down and restrict men’s clubs all over the city.

As you can see, anything “old” can have “historical significance” yet not everyone wants to preserve every old item or building for that matter.

That is my first issue with preservationists that insist on declaring a building a historical one.

In other words, someone who does not own a piece of property, who has never paid taxes on it or who has never paid to upkeep the building decides they like a building and thus feel they can impose their values upon it.

Think about that for a moment.

Do you really believe that liking a building bestows upon you the right to tell the owner what they can and cannot do with the property?

That is what historical preservationists insist upon when they demand that a property owner not tear down a building or tell them they cannot paint it a certain color.

That is not property ownership, rather it is property servitude.

Please do not make the mistake of equating health or safety standards with historical preservation. The two are incompatible in that they address two very different issues. A society needs health and safety standards in order to guarantee the safety of neighbors. Historical preservation does nothing other than to impose restrictions upon a property that the owner may not want or cannot afford.

Do I like old buildings? Most definitely. Chichen Itza is one of the coolest structures I have ever been on. The second coolest one are the Egyptian pyramids I had the opportunity to visit.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that the owners of the pyramids were evicted so that I and other tourists could enjoy it. That is the agenda of historical preservationists who rely on government edicts and laws to impose preservation upon structures that they do not own, even though they are unwilling to admit it.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

7 replies on “Why Is It Acceptable to Tell a Property Owner What To Do With Their Property?”

  1. Just saying…When a Government tells you what to pay your employees, spy on your cell phone, raise taxes or Tax breaks for supporters, and mandatory Health insurance…It can and do anything it sees fit for the Public-Government good.
    Voting does not seem to matter anymore.

  2. The point would be better taken if in fact we didn’t have council members such as Niland, Acosta y el Noe. They had no issue with taking whatever property needed during the entire ballpark fiasco. Public input was non-existent until the choices were already made. In fact if you recall city inspectors were being randomly sent by city administration to downtown buildings council thought they needed to make the ballpark happen. When you have council members such as these 3 stooges distrust becomes the norm. Now the sudden urgent need to include all affected is nothing but furthering special interest of the privileged. Why do you think that is? I would say the answer is easy, the 3 stooges know there are further plans in place for downtown EP and making anything historical would delay or force a change in plans. Lets see who will benefit from this one in the not so distant future…

  3. What a contradiction, they want a “cultural center” to exhibit Mexican Heritage, but want to demolish El Paso history.

    Who’s driving the bus? It’s the wasteful Brio Bus idea. It usually has a driver and no passenagers. And the logic, we have low ridership on the regular buses, so let’s buy bigger buses! My point, with this logic it is no surprise about losing the grants to study the historical buildings.

    As I stated in the previous topic, do what you want with your property until lack of maintenance is lower the value of the next property or it is a legitimate safety hazard. A “real” hazard, not an El Paso Inspectors raid. None of the bs that although there are maintenance crews, maintenance is never done.

    Don’t want to clean or make repairs, have the city do it and bill the owner, don’t want to pay, place a lien. The only concern is is the city capable of supervising the operation? Why, just look at the plaza.

  4. I have to wonder if these preservationist understand the added cost to restore “historic” buildings.
    Many of the embellishments that were placed on them a century ago are no longer used and therefore you have a single source or few sources to find a replacement. These end up costing numerous times more thanks to need vs options.

    You want people to invest in downtown yet you want them to pay double and sometimes triple the cost to refurbish a build when they can just build a new, state of the art one somewhere else.
    Historic buildings were not build with modern needs in mind either. Be they insulation, technology, mechanical considerations or safety.
    Can’t have it both ways El Paso. If you want people to invest in downtown, you have to make it a sound investment. Forcing them to shell out way more than what they would elsewhere with no guarantee of a return on investment is stupid. This is why downtown will never be more than a white elephant, people oblivious to how the real world works.

  5. Look, maybe you didn’t get the memo, the downfall of downtown shopping and business is due to the building of malls. The only way the shops downtown can survive is to sell something unique. Fix parking, it’s gotten to the point it has become a cash cow. For crying out loud finish the damn plaza.,

    When the downtown area is fixed along with nearby areas, stop the corrrruption, official ineptness and cheap labor, then maybe.

    One off the reasons El Paso is a mess is because it never learned to exploit what it has. Instead trying to “look some other city”. Other cities have learned the lesson. They renovated historical buildings, it gave them an inviting look. Tourists went to shop and see the old buildings. Next businesses moved into the cities. An educated workforce soon followed. We have a lot of history.

    We have a lot of famous actors, entertainers that grew up in El Paso. Where’s the plaques identifying the homes. Can you image if we hosted a Star Trek convention and people could see Roddenberrys childhood home or George Jeffersons home and grave site or Bev Hillbillies Granny’s house. Poncho Villa or Pershing slept here. San Elizario is nearby, they finally realized the missions and former Billy the Kid jail. Nearby Las Cruces.

    Sure it will cost some money but you can’t just go around bulldozing history. Some grants and private sector investment would help. Perhaps only the facade can be saved. Clean the Segundo Barrio area, not destroy it. Can’t go to Juarez, tourists will love the feel of Mexico.

    Do you really believe people want to visit a city that is the same as any other. Sorry but the trolley will not be a draw. It’ll get some use if tourists come to see El Paso and nearby cities. They won’t come just because there will be a trolley.

    Learn to use what we have and exhibit the good qualities. That’s how it’s done.

  6. Here’s the thing: Property owners generally get a say in whether or not their neighborhood becomes a historic district. At least, that’s the way it happened in the El Paso neighborhood why I own a home: Manhattan Heights. The purpose of the “H-overlay” as it’s called is to preserve the architecture that made the neighborhood special to begin with. Many cities enjoy economic benefits because they protect their historic buildings. But El Pasoans have been blind to the fact that historic preservation can be an economic development tool. No one is forced to buy a home in a historic district, they are free to buy a home anywhere else. But I do agree that El Paso could make owning and maintaining a home or building in a historic district more appealing by offering tax credits to offset the costs of rehabbing the buildings.

  7. You ask, “why is it acceptable to tell a property owner what he can do with his building,” well, you know the answer to that. Every city has building codes that dictate how a property owner shall go about either constructing a building or maintaining it once it’s built. Cities have codes that dictate how tall your grass can grow, how many electrical outlets you must have in a room, how tall the stair risers should be built, what type of piping you use in plumbing your bathroom, etc. The truth is you, none of us, who owns a home in a city, is absolutely free to do what we want with our homes, and there’s a reason for that. It comes down health and safety in some instances, and aesthetics in others.

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