Boston's Troubled Triple-Deckers May Offer Opportunity~

They're a hallmark of vernacular architecture in Boston, Mass., and in other cities along the New England coast: the three-story structures that sprang up, shoulder to shoulder, to serve as worker housing during the region's industrial boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With three apartments stacked up around a single staircase and hallway, the classic New England three-decker can hold three young families (or an undetermined number of college students). Typical three-deckers are a traditional income property, ideal in good times for a landlord investor (sometimes, with the owner occupying one unit and renting the rest out). But these are bad times for real estate, and in Boston and vicinity, as cash flow fails and investors bail, many old three-deckers, foreclosed or abandoned, are contributing to urban blight in bad parts of town. The New York Times covers the story in " Hard Times for New England’s 3-Deckers," by Abby Goodnough. "In Boston,” writes Goodnough, 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 New Bedford, Mass., officials are starting to tear down blighted three-deckers. But in Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino has endorsed a policy of preserving the buildings as affordable housing. Menino, the Times reports, has a soft spot in his heart for the triple-deckers, a familiar element of his youth in the predominantly Italian Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park. It's a sentiment echoed by author Dennis Lehane, who grew up in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood and gave the three-decker a place in novels such as Mystic River, the source for the 2003 Clint Eastwood-directed movie of the same name, starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon. In support of his vision, Mayor Menino points to a current developer project to rehab a row of foreclosed three-deckers on Dorchester's Hendry Street. The New York Times covers the Dorchester story in " Communities Become Home Buyers to Fight Decay," by Vikas Bajaj. Nationally, activists are gaining top-level attention for the concept of turning older urban low-rise building stock into high-performance green, energy-efficient housing. One advocate of this approach, activist Van Jones, proposes training inner-city youth to do the work, to provide job growth, housing, and community building within the scope of a single initiative. Jones has the ear of powerful Washington interests, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to an extensive profile in the New Yorker magazine (" Greening the Ghetto," by Elizabeth Kolbert). Jones has been pushing his philosophy in the heart of triple-decker country, New Bedford, Mass., and the surge of energy-efficiency stimulus money — along with the Federal tax credit for first-time home buyers — could serve to put some cash behind the concept. For green remodelers, the triple-decker offers some advantages. Simple in concept, the homes are cookie-cutter similar — so with a couple of jobs under your belt, you can almost turn the projects into a routine. And if it's high-performance energy-efficiency you want, the triple-decker is an ideal starting point, according to Boston-based remodeler Paul Eldrenkamp, who chaired Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's task force on zero-energy housing. Says Eldrenkamp, "Three-deckers with flat roofs represent a golden opportunity for deep energy retrofits — their simple exterior geometry makes it easy to add a foot or more of insulation to the exterior; and flat roofs make it easy to provide optimum orientation for solar panels. They also have very favorable surface-area-to-volume ratios, and are often in neighborhoods well served by public transportation. If we could get organized, we could turn whole neighborhoods into net energy producers."