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Affordability Advocates Rediscover Milwaukee's "Polish Flats" and "German Duplexes"

Polish and German immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often viewed homeownership not as a mark of achieved economic success but rather as a means to achieve it. In Milwaukee these immigrants developed the so-called Polish flat and German duplex. Both are two-family homes with separate entrances, but rather than the more usual arrangement of side-by-side units, one unit is stacked on top of the other. This arrangement enables a family of limited means to purchase both a home and a modestly priced rental apartment unit. The house’s footprint takes up less land than a side-by-side duplex, increasing its affordability.

These homes were “specifically designed both to accommodate and to accelerate the economic improvement of the family,” writes Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist in his book The Wealth of Cities. “Polish flats were human values reflected in architecture and testified to the hard work, practicality, and optimism of their inhabitants.” He notes that Atlanta’s and Houston’s double shotgun-style houses and Philadelphia’s row houses offer similar options to owners; both types may be easily adapted to house two families.

In recent decades, as new groups of minorities and immigrants move into Milwaukee’s ports-of-entry neighborhoods, they use the dual-family, resident ownership structures as the original residents did. The housing style continues to leverage homeownership for families of very modest means, allowing them to build equity.

New groups adopt Milwaukee’s dual-family homes. Milwaukee’s immigrant and minority groups of today—Hispanics, African Americans, Southeast Asians, and others—use the Polish flats and German duplexes as a means of upward mobility. According to Schuyler Seager, director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Improvement Development Corporation in Milwaukee, “The old duplexes continue to be used both as primary residences and rental properties, with the rental income making them more affordable.” He believes German duplexes, in particular, remain fundamentally good properties for affordable housing. “They are well constructed and their layout is adequate for today’s family.”

The value of the owner-occupied duplex is well recognized by Milwaukee banks. In making mortgage calculations on this type of home, the banks count a portion of the projected rent as income for the prospective buyer. One large local bank includes 75 percent of the rent. For example, if the rent for the unit is $400 per month ($4,800 per year), the bank adds $3,600 to the owner’s annual income.

There are many two-family homes in Milwaukee ranging in price from $35,000 to $60,000. Median income in Milwaukee County is about $31,000. To qualify for a mortgage on a $50,000 home with a 5-percent downpayment, a homebuyer would need a minimum income of $21,600. Factoring in a rental income of $400 per month reduces the buyer’s qualifying minimum income from earnings to less than $18,000 or about 58 percent of the median income. Homeownership thus becomes a realistic option for many households of modest income.

In addition to providing homeowners with rental income to help pay the mortgage, two-family homes offer both owners and renters many of the amenities of single-family housing including more room, a private entrance, attic and basement storage, a yard, and residence in a family neighborhood.

The city’s stock of two-family homes dates back to the 1880s. Between 1904 and 1914, they accounted for more than 60 percent of new construction in Milwaukee, according to Paul Jakubovich, author of As Good as New, A Guide for Rehabilitating the Exterior of Your Old Milwaukee Home. By 1930 the city had approximately one duplex for every single-family residence, a legacy of housing design that persists today in Milwaukee’s older neighborhoods.

A century of leveraging homeownership. The Polish flat of Milwaukee today bears witness to its humble beginnings. Homeownership was a cultural imperative for Polish immigrants, according to Jakubovich. As soon as they could manage it, Polish households would purchase a small one-story or story-and-a-half frame workers’ cottage, or perhaps build one on a vacant lot. These houses were typical of the period, built on a cedar post foundation, featuring modest Victorian Gothic or Queen Anne facades and simple brackets and spindles for decoration. The family would then raise the house, creating a partially sunken basement apartment.

The owner would either rent the basement unit or live in it and rent the more desirable top apartment, which could command more rental income. The walk-in basement units had street-level windows and a separate entry, usually under the front stoop. Steep wooden steps provided access to the main living area in the top unit. The dual-unit home could also be used as the family expanded or for extended family. Some of the older Polish flats, however, have certain drawbacks, such as foundation problems, low doorways, and inadequate room for heating systems.

Enduring architecture. The German duplexes reflect the immigrants’ use of artisans and skilled laborers to build relatively large and more gracious two-flat duplexes. These homes were “often enhanced with leaded glass windows, finely handcrafted woodwork, and other amenities,” writes Norquist.

At least one contemporary architect is rethinking the duplex house for today’s market. Dr. Avi Freidman of McGill University in Montreal developed the NEXT House. His design allows homeowners or builders to easily shift the position of existing walls and stairways to form a triplex, duplex, or single-family residence as family needs evolve. Echoing the historical role of Milwaukee’s German duplexes and Polish flats, Friedman’s work suggests that homeownership with a rental unit may continue to be a viable component of affordable housing in the 21st century.

For more information, contact: Schuyler Seager, Director, Neighborhood Improvement Development Corporation, 841 North Broadway, 10th Floor, Milwaukee, WI 53202, (414) 286–8212; or Dr. Avi Friedman, School of Architecture, McGill University, Macdonald-Harrington Building, 815 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, QC, Canada H3A 2K6, or

Or see: John O. Norquist, The Wealth of Cities, Revitalizing the Centers of American Life. Redding, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998; Paul Jakubovich, As Good as New, A Guide for Rehabilitating the Exterior of Your Old Milwaukee Home, Department of City Development, Historic Preservation Staff, P.O. Box 324, Milwaukee, WI 53201–0324, (414) 286–5707.

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