Housing Affordability - Changing the Conversation

Housing Affordability - Changing the Conversation

Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport
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Engaged Citizen: Housing Affordability - Changing the Conversation

In the time of the COVID-19 health crisis and the ensuing economic disruption and uncertainty about the future, demands for racial justice and major law enforcement reform/reimagining public safety were triggered by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Individuals and communities all over the country are doing some serious soul searching, including Brookline. Calls for change and accountability and calls for more affordable housing ...

Building a Better Brookline, aiming to make housing affordable to all in Brookline, held its first of three public forums, “Changing the Conversation,” on June 14. Hundreds were in attendance through a Zoom webinar (taped by Brookline Interactive Group) and on Facebook and YouTube.

Moderated by Rashmi Dyal Chand, a professor at Northeastern Law School, the forum presentations focused on the history of housing discrimination in the U.S. grounded in racial segregation, followed by panelists showing the interconnectedness of housing, diversity and inclusion, transportation, climate sustainability and economic development.

Bob van Meter of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, JALSA, summarized historical information in The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, tracing the history of housing discrimination and segregation, redlining, lack of access to federally backed mortgages and insurance, etc. Since home ownership is a major factor in wealth creation, this discrimination has resulted in lasting impacts on wealth, opportunity and quality of life for African-Americans.

According to van Meter, Brookline’s median priced home sells for $1.6 million today and a condominium for $600,000. The median income family in Boston can only afford $230,000. So the affordability gap is clearly not just for African-Americans, but for the “missing middle,” including fire fighters, teachers, police, small business owners, their employees, essential workers in grocery stores and pharmacies, young professionals and many middle class families, seniors on fixed incomes and those with disabilities.

A group of panelists wove the tapestry to show the interconnectedness of multiple factors affecting affordable housing. Deborah Brown, board member of Brookline Improvement Coalition and town meeting member/precinct 1, emphasized the necessity of each Brookline resident becoming informed, engaged and active in institutional change, i.e. to be an “anti-racist.” There is no room for being neutral. Affordable housing and additional resources to expand deed restricted housing administered by the Brookline Housing Authority is essential.

Jennifer Raitt, a member of the Housing Advisory Board, emphasized the need to address zoning restrictions that impede an increase in affordable housing. Zoning by-law changes require a 2/3 vote by town meeting. To change to a majority vote would require action by the Massachusetts legislature.

Chris Dempsey, chair of the Brookline Transportation Board and town meeting member/precinct 6 emphasized how parking requirements increase housing construction costs (some spaces are $100,000/unit). This requirement assumes car ownership. Affordability might increase if the person relies on about $100 for a monthly MBTA pass.

 

In addition, he cited some examples of older buildings, e.g. the building at 6 Harvard Square in Brookline Village (building over 100 years old), with the restaurant Magnolia Smokehouse at street level and three levels of housing above it, no parking, but near the MBTA. It is the fifth most valuable building in Brookline in terms of tax revenues per square foot. Just imagine if there were zoning to allow for mixed usage like this in commercial areas throughout Brookline.

 

Al Raine of the Economic Advisory Board and a mass transit expert, stressed economic development and affordable housing are complementary. Walkability and affordable housing around commercial areas has sustained North Brookline for 100 years. Imagining mixed-use buildings like in other parts of Brookline, with access to public transportation, could allow more affordable housing and increase Brookline’s tax base. Bob Van Meter stressed that changing zoning policies can create more inclusive housing policies, which is also addressing housing discrimination and racism, all connected.

Werner Lohe, who serves on the Climate Action Committee and is a town meeting member, emphasized that driving is a major polluter. The more people use public transportation, the better. Lack of affordable housing pushes people further and further away from their jobs, thus requiring a car.

In addition, much affordable housing – including the Brookline Housing Authority’s Col. Floyd redevelopment – would reduce capital costs and address climate change through electrification of cooking and heating.

Let’s imagine an inclusive future. Are you going to be a “Yes, in my backyard” person?

The League is a nonpartisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in government and that works to influence public policy through education and advocacy. All articles can be found at bit.ly/2pDSdPa.

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The League is a nonpartisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in government and that works to influence public policy through education and advocacy. All articles can be found at bit.ly/2pDSdPa.

 

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