Where affordable housing meets historic preservation

Mar 22, 2018

Search online for “affordable housing news” and you’ll find ten pages of recent results. There is widespread concern about this subject, and a consensus that increasing costs and decreasing access to safe, affordable housing are a national crisis.

A recent national study of affordable housing units for low-income renters found a shortage of seven million available homes. The study concluded that it would take a very long time and a massive sustained effort to fill a housing hole that big with new construction.

Architectural drawing from 1897


Why Historic New England is getting involved

This is where an organization like Historic New England can step in and ask, “Is new construction the only way to address the problem? What about housing built to be affordable long ago?” Buildings that already exist may contribute to solving our current crisis.

As the nation’s oldest and largest regional heritage organization, Historic New England has been documenting home life in the region for more than a century, with a strong focus on residential architecture. Its collection holds architectural drawings, floor plans, photographs, and related records. Among these are designs for the iconic three-decker, which provided a home for the owner, plus two other units for family members to share or to generate rental income to cover a mortgage. Historic New England has also long been a leader in historic preservation advocacy.

Upcoming conference will explore the topic

With these two strengths in mind, as a repository and an advocate, Historic New England is convening Preserving Affordability, Affording Preservation: Prospects for Historic Multi-Family Housing, a conference that looks at ways to preserve and adapt existing residential structures to meet affordable housing needs.

On April 27, advocates and policy leaders in many disciplines, including planning, design, finance, preservation, and history, will discuss the challenges and opportunities of preserving buildings like three-deckers for affordable housing. Presentations will look at the history of the three-decker, at models for preserving both the affordable nature of a historic multi-family structure and its architectural character, and at how current regulations and incentives might be modified to shift the tide of condominium conversion in such structures.

Addressing a problem as complex as the current shortfall in affordable housing requires using all available resources. By thinking only in terms of new construction, without considering that hundreds of structures already standing might be creatively remade in a modern version of their original use, we are squandering a valuable resource. We need to look back at the rich resource of multi-family housing across our region and see it anew as a foundation for addressing a critical need.

Learn more about the conference and register online.