Updated March 27 at 12:27am

Three-deckers find footing in past

By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer

Three-deckers, New England’s signature apartment buildings, are evolving again.

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Real Estate

Three-deckers find footing in past


Three-deckers, New England’s signature apartment buildings, are evolving again.

Once factory housing, then immigrant refuges and popular condominium conversions, three-family homes throughout the region took a disproportionate beating during the foreclosure crisis, with many abandoned.

Now three-decker aficionados see high rents and low interest rates making the buildings more attractive for a new generation of owner-occupants who used to lease apartments.

That would be good news for city and affordable-housing advocates who want to save three-deckers to preserve homes that can’t be replaced under current density-limiting land-use rules.

This year Boston created a $3 million fund to preserve three-family homes out of concern that loss of buildings through neglect or foreclosure could make that city’s tight housing market even tighter.

In Providence, the focus has been on encouraging a return to the setup that made the three-decker attractive in its heyday: the owner on the first floor and tenants above. This year the city cracked down on absentee landlords claiming the homestead exemption, which gives owner-occupants a 50 percent property-tax reduction.

Considered a blight at various times over the past century for poor upkeep or their association with low-income renters, three-deckers have more recently gained currency in architectural and historic-preservation circles.

“I think of them as a very positive house form,” said C. Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, who gave a lecture this fall on three-deckers at the Providence Preservation Society’s annual symposium. “Many of them were incredibly positive steps for people who lived in them over the decades. And they are very versatile,” she said. “Now you have young people and professionals moving back into them and living in them as they were originally intended.”

And if foreclosures don’t spike again, that popularity may cause apartment buildings that lost as much as half their value in the recession to gain ground in the market again.

“In the west side and Elmwood, you absolutely have owner-occupants coming in buying three-families, as long as they don’t need too much work,” said Jane Driver, broker with the Armory Revival Co. in Providence. “They are usually young couples who are renting and want to stay in the city.”

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