The owners could have sold their Cambridge building after a devastating fire. Instead, they seized the chance to rebuild a home that’s accessible to aging relatives, provides housing for the community, and helps the planet.
Geraldine Small won’t be told who can live in her Cambridge house.
At 67, the retired Boston Public Schools teacher has long since moved to Somerville, but she has always come back to 159 Allston St., the unassuming three-family home in Cambridgeport, a historically Black community filled with Caribbean-American families.
As a baby, Small slept there in a drawer. Her great-grandparents, who lived on the first floor, purchased the house in the early 1950s. Throughout the next 70 years, a stream of family members lived on the three floors. It was the house where they gathered on holidays, celebrating Christmases together on the first floor. Geraldine and her parents eventually moved to Jefferson Park, also in Cambridge, but they always came back to 159 Allston on Saturdays to visit family.
“I can remember just sitting in this living room here,” said Small, her gray hair perfectly coiffed. They would walk to church at St. Peter’s on Massachusetts Avenue and run down to Red’s, the corner store, to buy popsicles for themselves and Pall Malls for her great-grandma. “It was all good memories of being here.”
But of course, that was before Cambridge’s real estate market skyrocketed. These days, the median list price for a home in the city is $1.2 million, according to Realtor.com.
It was also long before 159 Allston St. and the adjoining properties burned.
In 2014, a nine-alarm fire swept through the property, which had been vacant since Small’s grandmother died. Family members had been battling over ownership. After all, a prime lot in Cambridgeport is worth a pretty penny. Just a charred shell of its former self, the home was torn down that December.
Small was adamant that Allston Street stay in the family.
“It wasn’t going to be sold. My brother and I were like: ‘Nah, it’s our watch. We’re going to do this. We’re going to figure it out,’” said Small, who now co-owns the property with her brother, Edward Jr.
That isn’t to say there weren’t any offers.
Nearly every day, Small would get calls tempting with big bucks, but she knew how desperately the Boston area is for housing, particularly units that are Americans with Disabilities Act accessible. She remembered the difficulties her family faced over the years, when elderly and disabled relatives had to be carried down the stairs. If the building had been constructed differently, her family could have aged in place — making use of the property they had called their own for almost a century.
“I feel like there’s a great need for this type of housing,” Small said. “I’ve had a lot of examples in my lifetime of family that, if their home was laid out a little bit differently, they could have stayed.”
Rather than cash out, Small was determined to rebuild, creating an affordable and accessible unit on the first floor for her cousin and charging market rent on the top two floors.
“So my thing is, if you know better, you do better,” said Small, who originally considered the suggestion that she work with the city to make it official low-income accessible housing, but “I basically didn’t want them to tell me who I had to put in here.”
That meant finding someone she and her brother, who is retired from the MBTA, could afford to hire to rebuild it. While Small had been wise with the insurance money from the fire, building in Cambridge is expensive. While watching the local news one evening, she saw Gwendolen G. Noyes, a partner in Oaktree Development, speaking about energy-efficient and affordable modular construction on three-family properties in Boston-area communities where the housing inventory is low. So Small called her.
Small’s interest in technology was sparked when she taught at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School during the rise of the computer age. It was there she came to look at things from an accessibility point of view.
“Levers are better than handles. Everybody can use a ramp, but not everybody can use stairs,” she said. She knew if 159 Allston were rebuilt with an ADA-compliant first-floor unit, several more generations of the Small family could live there and age in place.
“She had a clear idea of how this was going to be an asset for her family,” Noyes said, but in addition to making an ADA-accessible property, she wanted to make it energy-efficient. At Noyes’s suggestion, they determined it would be built to Passive House standards, meaning that from the foundation up, it’s constructed to reduce energy use for heating and cooling significantly.
“It’s a more difficult way of building, but there’s nothing bad about it. It’s healthier. It’s less energy use. It’s better for the environment. It’s just difficult and expensive,” Noyes said. “Everybody knows that there’s nothing wrong with it except that you have to think more about it and pay more for it.”
Similarly, modular construction is “still comparatively in adolescence,” Noyes said. Still, she calls the technology “a no-brainer,” particularly in a state with a housing shortage. Many features — such as beams, columns, countertops, and plumbing fixtures — can be built in a factory, where they aren’t exposed to weather. There’s little disturbance to the neighborhood until installation day.
The women knew they were taking on a massive project during the height of COVID-related supply chain shortages in late 2021. Attaining the appliances was a challenge, especially since they all had to be Energy Star-certified to meet Passive House requirements. “Unless you can swim out to the harbor for the big cargo ship and get the materials off the boat, forget about it,” Small said with a laugh.
On Dec. 23, 2021, the new multifamily at 159 Allston St. finally arrived in six giant boxes on trucks from northern Maine. The cabinets were already installed, as were the windows. The boxes were so big, surrounding streets had to be temporarily shut down.
Of course, the rewards will be significant: Multifamily houses that qualify for Passive House incentives in Massachusetts can receive around $25,000 in rebates, according to Noyes.
Smalls is going to rent out the top two floors, noting that the only way the family will lose the house is if it “doesn’t pay for itself.”
“And it’s more important to me to try to keep this house in the family.”
As for her cousin, who will live in the accessible first-floor unit, they’re hoping he can move in this April.