We need more housing

There seems to be growing consensus that housing in Brookline is becoming prohibitively expensive to the detriment of our culture and economy and that we need to do something about it. Housing has become so expensive that even working professionals struggle, from firefighters and teachers to doctors and lawyers. The big idea is to build more housing and reform the zoning by-laws to enable it. That’s critical to our future, and I won’t belabor the point since if you’re reading this you probably already agree.

The benefit, however, will be slow to accrue because permitting and construction is a long process, most new housing is for luxury units, and it takes a while to trickle down to the middle market. We need help now. In the meantime, what else can we do?

Actually, I believe there are thousands of existing homes suitable for middle- and low-income families that have been artificially (or unlawfully) removed from the general market. Their removal has contributed to the housing shortage and run-up in prices. Would it be possible to get them back into circulation through a judicious use of housing policy and enforcement of town ordinances and Fair Housing laws?

For context, the population of Brookline was estimated to be 59,234 people in 2018.1 Based on the assessor’s database there are currently over 25,652 residential housing units in Brookline. Of those, approximately 10,325 (40%) are owner-occupied and 15,327 (60%) are rental units. Around 1,406 (5.5%) are listed as affordable units on the Assessor’s database, meaning they are restricted on some criteria, such as income, or owned by a housing authority.

I’m writing to share observations and raise questions of where we might find and unleash hidden, existing housing stocks to alleviate the shortage while new stocks are built. Below are six+ items for consideration.

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  1. https://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US2509210-brookline-ma/
  2. Based on the Brookline Assessors 2020 Property Database, available at https://www.brooklinema.gov/DocumentCenter/Index/1220. I excluded categories such as hotels, inns, fraternities, lodging houses, nursing homes, hospitals, assisted living, etc. from my analysis. For purposes of this analysis, I consider a unit to be owner-occupied if it has a Residential Exemption in place. This is an approximation. Some owner-occupants haven’t filed for the Residential Exemption despite the strong financial incentive to do so. Conversely, some owners with an exemption move out and put their unit up for rent without telling the town and so (improperly) keep their exemption.
  3. Although only 40% of units are owner-occupied, 62% of properties are owner-occupied. The difference is because in many multi-family units the owner lives in one apartment and rents out the others. For example, 523 of the 803 two-family houses in Brookline are occupied by the owner. If a multi-unit building has a residential exemption in place then I assume one unit to be owner-occupied and the remaining units to be rental.
  4. The official count of “affordable” units in Brookline for 40B purposes hovers just shy of 10%. That number is divorced from reality. The denominator in the equation is based on the decennial census, not the assessor’s database, meaning it’s using a count of the housing stock from 2010 and likely too low. Additionally, the numerator gets artificially inflated: if a rental apartment building has any affordable units, then every unit in the building gets counted as “affordable”. Therefore, the 10% estimate of affordable housing is grossly overstated.
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AVI KAUFMAN is a top broker who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and works there and surrounding communities, assisting buyers and sellers of residential property. He is building a unique practice dedicated to serving the best interest of his clients - see how he's different.