Boston’s Beloved Triple-Deckers Are Next-Level Affordable Housing
This article is reprinted with permission from Bloomberg CityLab, where it originally appeared.
It’s been a workhorse of affordable housing in urban New England for more than a century, and a building type that is as Boston as a Dunkin’ coffee. But in keeping with the city’s predilection for barstool debates, there’s disagreement about what to call it: Is it the triple-decker or the three-decker?
The only consensus may be that the correct pronunciation of the latter part of the term is “deckah.”
Either way, the triple-decker — let’s go with that — has endured since the turn of the last century as a sturdy, practical and even urbane form of housing, quietly prominent in the quintessential Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester, South Boston, Charlestown and beyond.
Tens of thousands of triple-deckers were built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries across New England, in surrounding cities like Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence and Fall River. The simplicity of the design is its calling card. The three floor-through living units stacked on top of each other — initially likened to British sailing warships that had three decks of armament — had kitchens and bathrooms at the same spot on each level, to consolidate plumbing and electricity in one vertical duct.
Invariably simple-wood-frame construction, these free-standing buildings had generally identical floor plans, succinct balconies and small backyards, a mix of flat and gable roofs, and abundant fenestration, to bring in fresh air and natural light. A single front door leading to an internal staircase usually served residents of all three levels; others boasted two front entrances, with one reserved for the ground-floor occupants (often the building’s owner), and another for those upstairs.
The triple-decker building boom was a very pragmatic response to a housing crush in this fast-industrializing region. Waves of newcomers, often immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, were drawn to the factories and textile mills of New England during the second half of the 19th century. Many had been staying in stables and tents or were crowded in substandard conditions. Business leaders had a need, and private developers bought up parcels and built the supply.
Despite their modest roots as cheap housing for low-income families, triple-deckers boasted up-to-date amenities and a touch of style that allowed them to blend into a mix of urban and suburban contexts. As groups like the New Haven Preservation Trust have documented, ornamentation followed the architectural tastes of the era: Earlier triple-deckers might include Queen Anne-style elements like decorative shingles and elaborate turned porch balusters and railings; later, the Colonial Revival style, with its plain clapboard siding and more staid details, predominated. Most had bay windows facing the street, to maximize interior lighting; a larger trio of decks invariably hung from the house’s rear.
Inside, a typical floor plan called for two bedrooms, living and dining rooms, a generous kitchen and a full bathroom with a tub.
Long before contemporary urbanist catchphrases like “gentle density” and “missing middle” housing were invoked to promote modestly scaled multifamily construction, triple-deckers embodied the idea. The original threeplex. (Oh no, another label option!) Packed tightly onto narrow lots, sometimes in semi-detached pairs known as “perfect sixes,” the boxy structures — close to workplaces or linked to public transit— offered an attainable alternative to more expensive single-family homes, all in service to a healthy local economy. This was state-of-the-art workforce housing, New England-style.
“The three-decker is democratic architecture,” wrote architectural historian Arthur Krim in his 1977 survey of the form, The Three-Deckers of Dorchester. “It was neither tenement nor mansion, but rather good solid housing. It was large enough to raise a host of children around the dining room table, but small enough to keep a pot of flowers on the back porch.”
A Multi-Level Menance
In a parallel with the current affordable housing policy debate, three-deckers eventually drew a backlash.
What today we see as an elegant housing solution was greeted as scourge by the established order in Boston and environs, precisely because of who was moving in. The triple-decker was targeted as part of the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment at the turn of the 20th century, blocked from spreading farther, either by code tweaks that prohibited cooking on the second floor — the wood-framed buildings were described by opponents as fire-prone — or by outright construction bans, as cities began to curate restrictive land use regulations via the newly embraced concept of local zoning.
By about 1920, 36 municipalities in Massachusetts outlawed new triple-deckers, according to the New England Historical Society. Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island, followed suit. Commentators in an organized public-relations campaign railed against the “three-decker menace.”
Imagine that — a not-in-my-backyard rebellion against density, with the building itself cast as the villain — just like those caricatures of monster-scaled apartment towers with fierce teeth that today’s NIMBYs brandish at protests. Then as now, the resistance was less about the structures and more about the people who would live in them.
By the 1930s, the bans had succeeded in halting triple-decker construction, choking off the supply of what ended up being naturally occurring affordable housing. Boston and many other cities ultimately began building public housing developments to house lower-income families, which due to a variety of reasons in design and policies ended up riddled with problems.
The triple-deckers that were built remained in place, and went through various iterations. Many deteriorated badly after World War II, as neighborhoods suffered through the economic turmoil of manufacturing and population loss. Some were bulldozed amid “urban renewal” efforts of the 1950s and ’60s, relegating the style to a signpost of blight in what had become beaten-down neighborhoods.
But thousands survived, becoming entry-level home ownership that had the added benefit of potential rental income.
Survival and Revival
By the 1980s and ’90s, some triple-deckers in rebounding neighborhoods like Charlestown and South Boston were were being snapped up by developers, turned into condominiums, or sold as townhouses to single families who could afford them.
Carol Wideman bought her 1905 Dorchester triple-decker in 1980. A single parent, she let the tenants in the first and third floors remain until they moved elsewhere, then installed her sisters and parents in those spaces.
“They’d be here for transitional times until they got back on their feet,” Wideman says, referring to extended family who on occasion gratefully took advantage of the lodging. The modest rental income helped out with utility bills and upkeep. “It’s comfortable,” she says. “I like the idea I can provide a place for family. It was a nice feeling for my parents as they got older.”
That’s the thing about living in a triple-decker. The common floor plan can conjure a sense of community among each building’s residents, whether they’re related or not, that somehow feels more right-sized than living in a larger apartment building. Because each level follows the same floor plan, the only difference between units is each family’s furnishings and interior décor. (Thanks to stacked kitchen locations, lower-floor triple-decker denizens are likely to also share the cooking smells that waft upwards.) Despite their modest roots, the roomy, light-filled living spaces remain appealing to modern homebuyers.
The building form has clearly been worth saving. After a fire in 2019, Wideman’s home was renovated for the popular TV show This Old House, in a glorious demonstration of how the original configuration works so well. The structure got the full treatment, retrofitted down to the studs, with new wiring, heating system, plumbing and more. The show’s Boston-bred host, Kevin O’Connor, was thrilled to do the work, having lived in a triple-decker himself for a few years. “These are extremely durable homes,” he says.
Finding the ‘Future-Decker’
Wandy Pascoal, the Housing Innovation Design Fellow at the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab, has been studying the life and times of the triple-decker — both to reuse and renovate the existing housing stock and to promote new models of simple multifamily housing that capture some of its virtues. When speaking with residents about their experiences living in three-deckers, Pascoal found that, far from being a sinister monster, the triple-decker was a versatile home style that could accommodate housing needs at different stages of life.
“The scale and abundance of the triple-decker allowed for the creation of truly intergenerational communities who not only knew each other but also came to grow alongside one another,” she says. “We heard from those who grew up in them, newer residents who came to appreciate the personal value of the building type, and even those who never lived in one but would often visit family members who did. A story we frequently heard was of an older grandparent, typically a grandmother, who upon migrating to the United States would soon after purchase a triple-decker. While living in one of the apartments, the grandparent would offer the remaining two to extended family or rent them out at an affordable price to those who needed a home.”
Several triple-deckers have been renovated with the support of city-sponsored programs such as the Boston Home Center’s HomeWorks Home Equity Loan Program; others have been converted into condos where each floor-through unit is owned and fixed up by an individual or family. Along with stripping their 1970s-vintage vinyl or aluminum siding, new owners often remove interior walls during renovations to create combined living-dining rooms, open-concept kitchens, larger master bathrooms and other modern configurations.
And something else came along fairly recently that put the triple-decker in the spotlight: As more communities looked to the building sector for solutions to the climate crisis, these drafty old houses became great candidates for clean-energy retrofits. Local designers are participating in competitions like the Massachusetts Clean Energy Coalition’s Triple-Decker Energy Challenge and Co-Creating Boston’s Future-Decker, sponsored by the City of Boston and the Boston Society for Architecture, to come up with retrofit protocols. Oil-heated original homes are being converted to electric heat and given green add-ons like solar panels and charging ports.
Such retrofits can be expensive, further boosting the values for what was cheap housing. A triple-decker in Dorchester is listed at $1.2 million for the entire building; the floor-through apartments, sold as individual condos, routinely go for $700,000 and up. Still, adapting older homes is inherently efficient as a matter of carbon emissions: As O’Connor, and many others point out, the greenest building is the one that already exists.
There is nothing like a preserved triple-decker — or even better, a whole block of them — to stir appreciation of graceful density and urbanity. Being 100 years old, their presence connotes a certain pride in the region’s history. Yes, they look essentially the same, one after the other. But that uniformity has a certain functional beauty.
Indeed, the fate of the triple-decker might well inform the emerging critique that new multifamily developments all look alike. (It remains to be seen if future generations will look back at today’s “five-over-one” complexes with similar appreciation.) Just like the elegant curve of townhouses in Bath, the blunt symmetry of triple-deckers sends a message: There’s plenty of room here for people to live.
And what to call them? Wideman, the owner of the Dorchester building, says she was only vaguely aware of the three-decker versus triple-decker debate.
“Either one is fine for me,” she says. “The main point is that it works.”
Lead Image: An East Boston neighborhood showcases its stock of triple-deckers. Credit: DenisTangneyJr/iStockphoto via Getty Images