In his recent inaugural address, Mayor Joseph M. Petty said, “As a city, we need to have a conversation about housing.” He went on to mention the need to revitalize the three-decker neighborhoods through a “whole-of-government” approach.
If the age of Worcester’s three-deckers is any indication, the mayor is absolutely right to make this a priority.
Massachusetts has some of the oldest housing stock in the country. But Worcester’s housing, three-deckers in particular, is much older. The median year of construction for a three-decker in Worcester is 1900, making them almost twice the age of the median Massachusetts home and three times the national median.
Old housing does not necessarily mean bad housing, but it does come with some risks. Older houses were not built with modern amenities or safety standards. Many were neglected or abandoned at some point, leaving structural and maintenance cost concerns for current owners and prospective buyers.
In rental units, many of the costs associated with an older home pass through to the renter. Census data show median rent in homes built before 1940 is 7 percent higher than those built in other years. While it is hard to pull apart exactly why rent is higher for old homes, maintenance costs are certainly a factor.
The mayor’s push to bring three-deckers up to code and beautify the neighborhoods surrounding them is a daunting task, especially when considering 98 percent of three-family homes in Worcester were built before 1920.
But, doing nothing could end up making the problem worse.
It is well documented that a building that is not maintained can lower the sale price of adjacent buildings. Older homes, which are more likely to have problems to begin with, can quickly deteriorate to the point where the cost to fix them becomes prohibitive. Letting these three-decker neighborhoods fall into disrepair not only risks tenants’ safety and Worcester’s beauty, but also the value of nearby properties.
Sometimes, specific goals in policy can work against each other. In housing policy, balancing quality and affordability can be a fine line to walk. Solutions to three-decker neighborhoods’ age-related problems won’t come easy, but getting the conversation going is a good way to start.