Interesting read. These things are a vital part of the urban fabric of inner-city New England, in any old factory town big or small.
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
Published: June 19, 2009
Jodi Hilton for The New York Times
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — As foreclosures batter the dense neighborhoods of urban New England, a regional emblem is under siege.
Terrence Hope is a tenant in a triple-decker in New Bedford, Mass. The city helped a new owner renovate the property.
Three-decker homes, which proliferated in cities like Boston; Providence, R.I.; and Worcester, Mass., a century ago and remain fixtures of the landscape, are being foreclosed on at disproportionate rates, left to decay and even razed.
Rows of wood-frame triple-deckers have provided moody backdrops in movies like “Mystic River,” a first glimpse of Boston for people who have landed at Logan International Airport and, for generations, an affordable and reasonably spacious place to live.
In the boom years, three-deckers presented a different kind of opportunity. Out-of-town investors bought them, sometimes by the block, and rented them out without keeping them up.
“For many people, they’re a form of business,” said Timothy M. Warren Jr., chief executive of the Warren Group in Boston, which tracks real estate transactions. “There are absentee landlords, they take the risk, and if it doesn’t work, they walk.”
In Boston, three-family homes represent 14 percent of the housing stock, but made up 21 percent of foreclosed property in 2008, according to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development.
In Lynn, Mass., three-family homes make up 9 percent of the housing stock and 22 percent of foreclosures, according to the Warren Group.
And here in New Bedford, a struggling seaport city, they make up 16 percent of the housing stock and 32 percent of foreclosures.
The price of triple-deckers has fallen much more than that of single-family homes and condominiums, said Tony Giacalone, owner of Tony’s Realty in East Boston, a working-class neighborhood. In his section of the city, Mr. Giacalone said, triple-deckers that sold for as much as $540,000 at the height of the market in 2004 are now going for about $300,000, with some bank-owned properties listed as low as $150,000.
While extinction is unlikely, the blight could forever change some neighborhoods where the triple-deckers are tightly packed, strikingly uniform and vital to the sense of place.
The boxy homes, which typically have flat roofs and tiers of porches, were built starting in the late 1800s to house the immigrant workers pouring into New England. They were a clear step up from tenement blocks, having private bathrooms and windows on every side.
Best of all, three-deckers put homeownership within reach of the working class. Buyers could live in one unit and rent out the others, assuring they could afford payments and upkeep for years to come.
“They were the speculative houses of the 1890s,” said Sally Zimmerman, a preservationist with Historic New England, a nonprofit group. “I’m not aware of any other class of building, at the time they were constructed, that presented the opportunity for home ownership at that scale.”
Living in a triple-decker, or at least within spitting distance of one, is almost as important to the cultural experience here as despising the Yankees and skipping work on St. Patrick’s Day. Dennis Lehane, who grew up amid three-deckers in Dorchester, a tough neighborhood of Boston, gave them prominent roles in “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and his other noirish novels about the city.
“There’s a sublime beauty about them,” Mr. Lehane said. “Anything that is a unique characteristic of a region, that really tells you where you are, is exciting; it gives flavor, and you don’t see that much anymore.”
Foreclosed three-deckers have become prime targets for squatters, vandals and thieves, who sometimes set them on fire to gain access to copper pipes inside the walls. In Worcester, 60 percent of vacant, bank-owned dwellings with multiple code violations, are three-families, as are 21 of the city’s 27 condemned buildings.
In New Bedford, whose poorer neighborhoods brim with three-deckers, Mayor Scott W. Lang has set about demolishing the worst of them, including seven so far this year.
“It’s only a matter of time before it begins to spread like a cancer,” Mr. Lang said.
On some streets in New Bedford, tight rows of triple-deckers are now interrupted here and there by dirt lots, which impart the odd effect of missing teeth.
Patrick Sullivan, the city’s director of housing and community development, said its foreclosed three-deckers were mostly owned by absentee landlords who had scooped them up as investments and then let them decay. In one notorious case, Mr. Sullivan said, a single investor bought hundreds of properties in New Bedford and other Massachusetts cities during the real estate boom, ran up dozens of code violations and fled the country.
Mr. Lang hopes the demolitions make room for small parks, community gardens or parking lots.
“It might make sense to open up a little air, allow some green space, create a little more of a recreational-type pattern,” he said.
Boston, home to roughly 15,000 three-deckers, is taking a different approach. It has not demolished any abandoned three-deckers because city officials want to preserve as many affordable housing units as possible, said Evelyn Friedman, chief and director of the Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development.
Modern zoning laws, Ms. Friedman said, would never allow three units on such small lots.
“If we have four three-deckers on 12,000 square feet and could only get two on that amount of land now,” Ms. Friedman said, “we are losing six units. So it’s very important to us to sustain them.”
Ms. Friedman believes the foreclosure rate on triple-deckers is even higher than the data indicate, because many were converted into condominiums in recent years. These are counted in a separate category that made up 48 percent of the city’s foreclosed properties last year.
Over the last year, the city has acquired a few dozen foreclosed three-deckers from banks and sold them to developers for rehabbing. In a pet project of Boston’s mayor, Thomas M. Menino, a developer is renovating a row of foreclosed three-deckers on Hendry Street in Dorchester, which had the highest concentration of foreclosed homes in Boston in 2008.
“My family had a three-decker, and when relatives came over from Italy, that’s the first place they all stayed,” said Mr. Menino, who grew up in the Hyde Park section of Boston.
But even if a city wanted to renovate every abandoned three-decker, the expense would probably be too much. Demolition is not cheap, either, so many blighted three-deckers could remain standing, yet uninhabitable, for years.
To devotees like Mr. Lehane, whose childhood home in Dorchester was a Victorian surrounded by three-deckers, even that might be better than wiping the landscape clean of them.
“When I see a three-decker, I immediately feel home,” he said. “Whereas if I see a Dallas or a Houston — that flat, suburban, here’s-another-McMansion look — I find that really depressing.”