GONZÁLEZ: Hey, everybody. I’m Ana.

NUNES: I’m Alex. And you’re listening to Mosaic.

GONZÁLEZ: For generations, the story of the New England triple decker home was pretty simple.

NUNES: You come to this country as an immigrant, rent one unit of a three decker apartment, save up your money and buy your own triple decker. Then, when the time is right, you pass on the home and that generational wealth to your kids.

GONZÁLEZ: But today, the triple decker narrative is a lot more complicated.

BRENDA: The usage of what we consider kind of iconic triple deckers and double deckers, has changed dramatically. Supply is limited, demand is steady and growing, and price goes up. Basic Economics 101.

NUNES: Today, three family homes are used for all kinds of different reasons. Some are student housing. Some are high-priced condos in gentrified neighborhoods. Others have been bought up by absentee landlords and ignored for decades.

GONZÁLEZ: And they’re still important for today’s immigrants, who have the same dreams as people who came before them. But the story of the triple-decker is not so simple now.

NUNES: In this episode of Mosaic, we explain why.

NUNES: Alphonse Mupenzi is a refugee from the Congo. About a decade ago, violence forces him to flee his home country with his wife and three young kids.

GONZÁLEZ: They make it to Uganda and spend five long years there, waiting to be permanently resettled. 

NUNES: Then, in 2016, they get very good news: they’re being resettled as refugees in America, in a city called Providence, Rhode Island. 

ALPHONSE: I was excited. I was excited as a refugee. Our hope was to be safe. So I was excited. Everything was like a dream, yes.

GONZÁLEZ: When Alphonse and his wife and kids arrive in Rhode Island, they get help from Dorcas International and the Central Congregational Church in Providence. And they quickly get put up in their first apartment.

NUNES: The building is totally unfamiliar. They’re living on the third floor, and two apartment units are below them. It’s a New England triple decker.

GONZÁLEZ: And it catches Alphonse’s attention. 

ALPHONSE: I used to ask my landlord--Spanish guy, is good guy. I used to chat with him. “How come?” Until the end, he said, “Why don’t you buy this house?” I was living in it one year then. That’s how I started getting that idea. “Yeah, that’s cool.”

NUNES: Alphonse doesn’t have the money to buy the triple decker. But those conversations get him thinking and dreaming.

GONZÁLEZ: Like thousands and thousands of immigrants before him, Alphonse’s goal is now to one day buy a multi-family home.

ALPHONSE: In my culture, if you have a home, you have a country. If you don’t have a home, you are moving. Today, you here. Tomorrow, you are other side. In French, we say nomad. So that’s number one. Number two is I have kids. I just want to give them stability, to be stable. Number three is kind of business. For income, to earn more, yeah.

GONZÁLEZ: New England triple deckers started going up in big numbers about 150 years ago, housing waves of immigrants from places like Italy, Portugal, Canada, and Eastern Europe. 

NUNES: And today, they are still really important to immigrants in this region.

GONZÁLEZ: A three family home is often the first place an immigrant family lands when they get to Rhode Island or Massachusetts, or other New England states.

NUNES: But the role of the triple decker isn’t what it used to be. Nowadays, a lot of other people besides immigrants want to own triple deckers, and even more people want to rent three decker apartments. 

BRENDA: The usage of those, what we consider those kind of iconic triple deckers and double deckers, has changed dramatically.

NUNES: This is Brenda Clement. She’s the executive director of Housing Works RI. It’s a research and advocacy group based at Roger Williams University. 

GONZÁLEZ: She says triple decker home prices have more than doubled since the Great Recession, and the reason boils down to pretty basic math. Lots of people want them. But the number of triple deckers is limited, and we don’t make new ones like we used to.

BRENDA: Because we just have simply not been producing enough affordable housing over the past 10, 20 years, we see more and more pressure on that rental stock. Supply is limited, demand is steady and growing, and price goes up. Basic Economics 101.

NUNES: The cities in Rhode Island with the most triple deckers are Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket, and Newport. And each community faces its own set of challenges when it comes to triple deckers.

GONZÁLEZ: In Providence, colleges like Brown, RISD, Johnson & Wales, and Providence College don’t have the space they need to house all of their students, so many of them go looking for triple decker apartments to rent off campus. 

NUNES: Developers in places like the East Side of Providence are also in the mix, buying up three deckers, gutting them, and turning them into higher-priced condos in gentrified neighborhoods.  

GONZÁLEZ: Then there are investors who want to make money on short-term renters. In Newport, buying a triple decker is harder because people with money want them so they can rent out the units to the Airbnb crowd in the summer months.

NUNES: And anywhere you find triple deckers, you also find homes with lots of problems. 

GONZÁLEZ: Many of them are old and deteriorating. They’re not safe places to live, and many immigrants don’t have the money or access to loans to fix them up.

BRENDA: There may be lead; there may be asbestos; there may be other environmental challenges in those buildings that make them not good investments for a young family or as somebody who’s wanting to buy their first home to develop some equity.

NUNES: Add all this up, and the classic narrative about the immigrant and the triple decker home starts to look less and less relevant, or at least under threat. 

MARC: Triple deckers are in flux.

GONZÁLEZ: This is Marc Levitt. He’s a filmmaker currently working on a documentary titled, “Triple Decker, a New England Love Story.” 

MARC: The triple decker now, like most housing, is a commodity. It’s not about the sentiment of the place. It’s not about finding a place where you know you’re going to live a long time, for many people. Now you have international money with lots of cash to spend on transforming the triple decker into simply another way to make money in a portfolio of lots of money. 

NUNES: Marc says the current trend has been emerging over generations.

GONZÁLEZ: The children and grandchildren of immigrants who moved into triple deckers in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s moved out in vast numbers decades ago. 

NUNES: They didn’t want to work in urban factories like their parents. They wanted to live in the suburbs, work desk jobs, drive cars, and go to shopping malls.

GONZÁLEZ: Immigrants from places like the Carribean, South and Central America, and Africa and Asia replaced them in triple deckers. At the same time, financial institutions began to disinvest in urban neighborhoods and many triple deckers deteriorated. 

NUNES: But today, people with professional jobs and money have moved back into New England cities--and triple deckers specifically, competing for them with today’s generation of immigrants and lower income families looking for affordable housing.

GONZÁLEZ: And now investors and developers are capitalizing on the opportunities that presents in cities like Providence, Jamaica Plain in Boston, or Dorchester and Worcester, in Massachusetts.

TAYLOR: We can start with maybe what is the traditional triple decker layout.

NUNES: I’m touring a renovated triple decker in Worcester, Massachusetts, with a developer named Taylor Bearden. The place is empty and still has that fresh paint smell. The apartment has stainless steel appliances, new cabinets, and polished stone countertops. The walls that typically separate the common rooms of a triple decker have been torn down.

TAYLOR: So we’re really creating these spaces where we’re taking the existing footprint of the triple decker and converting it into something that has all the amenities you might expect in a normal home today. 

NUNES: Like a lot of developers in New England, Taylor and his business partners have been buying up triple deckers for a few years now. He stresses that he’s not your average landlord. He wants to preserve triple deckers, strip away decades of slapdash repairs and neglect, and position his buildings to be safe places to live for another 100 years. 

TAYLOR: Finding a way to get back to the bones and fix the issues with those bones and start fresh is really how we’re going to preserve the triple decker as sort of a cultural heritage piece but also as an essential piece of housing for our neighborhoods.

NUNES: But doing this kind of renovation is costly.

GONZÁLEZ: Taylor says he can sink more than $300,000 into renovating all three floors of a building. And that’s on top of the money spent to buy the house.

NAR_ALEX: And that cost has to be made up somewhere, which means higher rents.

GONZÁLEZ: And that prices out a lot of people, including many newer immigrants and their families.

JENN: They’re doing this everywhere. It’s gentrification, basically. 

NUNES: Jenn Falcon was a renter in one of the triple deckers Taylor and his partners purchased a couple years back. 

GONZÁLEZ: Jenn says she and the immigrant family below her got kicked out to make way for the repairs needed to make the home suitable to what Taylor calls a “middle market” customer.

JENN: We used to have a nice community. I used to help the kids downstairs because they didn’t speak much English. I helped them with their homework. Their family cooked me some amazing food.

NUNES: Jenn admits the building she was living in was not in perfect condition. Still, she says she’s skeptical of Taylor and other developers. 

GONZÁLEZ She says they’re good marketers, but really what they’re doing is putting a friendly face on gentrification that displaces immigrants and people with lower incomes.

JENN: That’s a sales pitch. They want people from Boston. They want to turn Worcester into West Boston. You know, making it all cool and stuff. 

TAYLOR: It’s easy to just point to everyone who is working in housing as a real estate developer and say, “You are a gentrifier, if you are trying to improve housing and the consequence is increased rents.” But the reality is so much more complicated than that.

NUNES: Taylor says gentrification is a problem and people should be talking about. But he says people need to look at the situation realistically.

GONZÁLEZ: He says renters, including immigrants, need affordable housing, but those options might not be available anyway if absentee landlords keep letting their buildings fall apart. Those buildings could end up condemned or torn down and then no one can live in them. 

TAYLOR: We’re not trying to create a situation where we displace people even though you could look at housing development that raises rents as gentrification. But to me the bigger picture becomes: you’re learning a lesson in how to stabilize these properties, and now we’re trying to learn a new lesson, which is how to create these same properties that are affordable. 

NUNES: Taylor’s hoping that his next project will produce that kind of affordability. 

GONZÁLEZ: He plans to use grant money available from the city of Worcester and the state of Massachusetts to renovate triple deckers while, at the same time, taking on less debt. 

NUNES: That would allow him to keep rents low, and make triple decker apartments accessible to people who can’t afford his current rates, possibly even immigrant families.

GONZÁLEZ: Even as developers continue buying up triple deckers and prices rise, it seems like the immigrant dream of owning a triple decker home isn’t going away anytime soon. 

NUNES: Right. It’s definitely here to stay for now.

ALPHONSE: We start by here. This living room.

NUNES: You got your TV, your couch, the flowers?

ALPHONSE: Yeah. TV, couch, flowers.

NUNES: Alphonse Mupenzi and I are doing a little tour of his apartment. He and his family are renting in a two-family house right now on the East Side of Providence. 

NUNES: Who’s the family in the photos?

ALPHONSE: That is me, raising the hand. That’s my wife. These are my kids, Oliver, Sandra, and, in the middle, there is Sonya.

NUNES: Alphonse is working in the laundry department at Rhode Island Hospital, and his kids are enrolled in school now. He’s also still holding onto that goal of someday owning his own triple decker.

ALPHONSE: Yes, that’s my dream. Yeah, I’m praying for that. Yeah. 

NUNES: If Alphonse’s prayers are answered, he’ll become one of the thousands of immigrants, going back all the way to the 1800s, who came to New England, saved up, and got a shot at homeownership with the three family home.

GONZÁLEZ: Mosaic is a production of The Public’s Radio, edited by Sally Eisele with production help from James Baumgartner and Aaron Selbig. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Marc Levitt is producing his triple decker movie with support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. I’m Ana Gonzalez.

NUNES: And I’m Alex Nunes. Thanks for listening. 

Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org.