On June 11, 2013, Gov. Nikki Haley handed owners of abandoned buildings a magic wand when she signed into law the most powerful incentive for neighborhood revitalization that South Carolina has ever seen. It's called the Abandoned Building Revitalization Act (ABRA), and its passage was an initiative of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, the statewide partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The act was supported by a coalition of preservationists, community activists, fire and police departments, and elected officials, including Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.
The ABRA was passed because "the abandonment of buildings has resulted in the disruption of communities and increased the cost to local governments by requiring additional police and fire services due to excessive vacancies. Many abandoned buildings pose safety concerns ... and restoring these buildings to productive assets for the communities in which they are located [will] result in increased job opportunities."
The ABRA offers an income tax credit of up to 25 percent of the expenses involved in rehabilitating any income-producing building (historic or otherwise) that has been at least two-thirds vacant for five years or more. The amount you have to spend varies based on population; the rules require that in cities as big as Charleston, the property owner needs to spend at least $250,000, and the tax credit is capped at $500,000. The investment is less in small towns. But wherever the building is, the credit cannot be used if you owned the building before it was abandoned.
For example, a three-story commercial building on Upper King Street that has had a first-floor tenant for years but a vacant upper story might qualify for the tax credit. So, too, might a 10-year old strip mall that has been at least two-thirds vacant since 2009. And a multi-family rental building — whether built in 1780 or 1980 — might also qualify, if it has been at least two-thirds shuttered for the last five years (and you weren't the one shuttering it).
The expenses that qualify toward the tax credit include rehabilitation, demolition, renovation, or redevelopment of the building site, environmental remediation, site improvements, and construction of new buildings on the site (but new construction cannot exceed 200 percent of the building area of the existing structure). Demolition expenses for properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places are disqualified.
The tax credit can be taken against income taxes, but must be taken in equal installments over five years. If there is any credit left over, it can be carried over for another five years. If the property is sold or leased, the credit is transferable. The credit can also pass through an LLC to individual partners and investors.
What's even better is that if a property is on the National Register of Historic Places, additional tax incentives may apply, including a 20 percent federal income tax credit for rehabilitating income-producing historic properties, as well as a 10 percent state income tax credit supplementing the federal credit.
That's a bundle of incentives that makes one wonder why more at-risk neighborhoods (or even booming neighborhoods like Upper King Street or Cannon Street) aren't listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation investors are leaving 30 percent of their rehabilitation costs on the table that could have otherwise gone into making restoration projects higher quality or more financially appealing.
Here's an example: Let's say that you recently bought a vacant corner store in Radcliffeborough that contributes to the Charleston Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Your rehabilitation costs are $1 million. Of those expenses, $250,000 are available as a tax credit through ABRA. And if your project meets the specifications of the State Historic Preservation Office, you may be entitled to up to $200,000 through the federal historic preservation tax credit and an additional $100,000 through the state historic preservation tax credit. That's a savings of up to $550,000 in tax credits on a $1 million project.
But incentives aside, what makes this new ABRA incentive magical is that it applies to buildings that aren't historic — and that means non-historic rehabilitation projects don't require adhering to another layer of state rules and regulations. So that abandoned 1970s warehouse in a non-historic neighborhood in Hanahan and that vacant apartment building in West Ashley and that old gas station with the collapsed roof in North Charleston and that vacant grocery store all might qualify. The possibilities for stimulating community transformation are almost limitless.
The list is long in South Carolina's towns and cities of abandoned and semi-vacant buildings that qualify for this powerful new tax credit. Which proves that it pays to reuse what we have, and breathe new life into old communities. Making your neighborhood eyesore disappear is a magic act we can all appreciate.
Evan R. Thompson is the executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston.