Combating 'Overhousing'

A Two-Sided Solution for Near-Empty Triple-Deckers

By David Abel
Globe Staff

The seven children raised by Mary and Elbert Vines are all gone. There are cobwebs in the bedrooms where they slept, and pockmarked walls where their pictures hang. It's just the two of them in the cluttered, eight-bedroom triple-decker on Devon Street.

But these days, the Vineses are preparing for something they have not had in a while - company.

In a little-noticed but growing effort, the City of Boston and housing specialists are persuading homeowners, especially widows and elderly couples, to open their big homes to strangers in need of low-cost living space.

It's a way to try to ease Boston's housing crunch, with more than 6,000 homeless residents and some 20,000 on waiting lists for government subsidized housing.

Getting homeowners to agree to new tenants has not been easy. Many are reluctant, especially later in life, to live alongside strangers. But with coaxing and financial assistance for renovations and repairs, 25 already have signed on, including the Vineses, and officials hope to recruit hundreds more.

"I've been here so long I might as well stay until I'm gone," said Mary Vines, who long ago paid off the mortgage.

The phenomenon of "overhousing" - the term used when an individual lives in a home with three or more bedrooms - is growing, according to housing specialists, in part because senior citizens are living longer and hanging onto their large homes. Nearly half of all Boston homeowners considered overhoused are elderly, many living in three-deckers they paid off long ago.

Recent surveys show as many as 90 percent of seniors say they prefer to "age in place," said Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Being in familiar surroundings might contribute to peace of mind, but occupying the large homes for decades contributes to the very pressing housing shortage.

"This is a persistent problem," Retsinas said. "There's a lot of inertia among the elderly, and having paid their mortgages, many don't want to bother having new people living with them."

But city officials and community groups have come up with incentives to help persuade the homeowners to consider renting out part of their homes. They offer them cash to fix up the properties, which are often in need of repair. In exchange, the homeowners are required to lease the space to low-income tenants.

One of the city's first homeowners to sign up was Jennie Johnson, 62, a divorced grandmother who has lived in the same Mattapan three-decker for the past 35 years. Like other senior citizen homeowners, she used to rent out the units she didn't use. But after so many years, her house fell into disrepair and the apartments she rented began failing inspections.

Trying to comply with city codes was expensive and too much of a hassle. "I was in and out of housing court . . . it was a nightmare," she said. So when her last tenant died several years ago, Johnson didn't bother trying to rent again, and she began living alone in her eight-bedroom home.

After a while, though, something didn't feel right. "I thought it was selfish to keep such a big house just for me," she said. But she didn't want to leave. Then she learned about Nuestra Comunidad's program.

For agreeing to rent her first- and second-floor units to low-income tenants, the group helped finance all the apartments' necessary renovations, from new bathrooms and kitchen appliances to new carpeting and windows. To cover the costs, it also secured special city grants for $75,000 and provided her a low-interest $30,000 mortgage.

Now, with her home almost completely renovated, Johnson has a monthly income of nearly $2,000. Her only requirement, until she pays back her mortgage, is that she rent to low-income tenants. "I think it's a good deal," she said.

Officials at Nuestra Comunidad, the city's main community group addressing overhousing, believe there are at least 1,200 other seniors in Roxbury and Dorchester alone who are living in mostly vacant three-decker homes. Their efforts to expand the housing program have support from the highest levels of city government.

"This is a win-win situation," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who complains that the federal government isn't doing its share to help build affordable housing in Boston.

There is a limit, though, to how many grants the city can cover. "We're doing what we can, and we'll continue to move on this," he said.

For now, the problem isn't a lack of city grants, as much as persuading seniors it's in their best interests to participate in the program. Despite Nuestra Comunidad's success, other organizations have found it difficult to get seniors to agree to a new mortgage, let alone welcome strangers into their homes.

Since East Boston's Neighborhood of Affordable Housing group began promoting the program a year ago, only five seniors have signed up. Others filled out applications, but after a while, they dropped out.

"Many of them just got cold feet," said Phil Giffee, the program's director. "This isn't the final answer to solve the affordable housing crisis."

Still, with thousands of potential apartments available, it could make a dent.

For seniors like Mary Vines, it's a way to fix up the house, as well as earn some much-needed money. More than a century old, Vines's home is crumbling, the ceilings are sagging, paint is peeling off the walls, and there are piles of clothing, newspapers, and other clutter all around.

The repairs to her home will cost more than $300,000, but with grants from the city and the income from future rent, she believes it's worth it. Moreover, Nuestra Comunidad will find tenants, draw up the leases, and do all the things a property owner usually needs to do as the landlord.

Eventually, after all the work has been finished and she and her husband have passed on, Vines said, she'll have something worth leaving to her children.

"This is a nice home," she said. "They should have the chance to live here, with their families. It's better that it isn't empty."

David Abel can be reached at

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