Paving the way towards accessible affordable housing


Serena Ibanez / SAGAMORE

Brookline’s zoning limits enforce the town’s troubling wealth disparity by allocating more funds to certain neighborhoods, thus resulting in inequitable comfort levels depending on income and race.


Brookline was the first community in the country to implement racially restrictive housing covenants, which effectively banned people of color from buying certain homes in Brookline and created segregated neighborhoods.

Brookline has a history of redlining and zoning for the purpose of exclusion. Zoning laws regulate what types of buildings can be built in different areas. Redlining is the practice of banks denying housing loans to people who live in neighborhoods of color (usually predominantly Black neighborhoods).

The areas of Brookline that have benefited most from redlining are now predominantly restricted to single-family zoning (one family per home), while the areas that were redlined tend to be apartments and mixed-use housing (containing both residential and commercial). Brookline’s zoning laws are shaped by this history; they restrict the amount and density of housing, artificially driving up housing prices and making it impossible for many to afford to live in the town. This disproportionately impacts renters and homeowners of color and exacerbates the racial wealth gap.

The housing crisis

X, a current student at the high school, moved to Brookline when she was five years old. Her family’s first apartment was a two-bedroom with little square footage. The laundry was in a molding basement, and the machines were often broken. There was a rat problem, which became so severe that her father duct-taped the fire exits of the apartment to keep them out.

“The housing situation we had was very chaotic in the beginning. The winter was the hardest,” X said. “You rely on the apartment company to turn on the heating, but they would either [turn on the heat] really low or only at a certain time of day. My mom would literally wear a winter jacket in the building. Looking back, it was very serious.”

The quantity and quality of Brookline’s affordable housing supply are dire. The Greater Boston area is facing an extreme housing crisis, and this is exacerbated in Brookline due to significantly higher housing prices and living costs.

Many families pay more than half their incomes on rent alone and struggle to stay in Brookline with the rising costs of market-rate housing. Some will choose to move into subsidized units which include both privately-owned affordable housing and publicly-owned housing. However, the number of subsidized housing units is much smaller than the number of people trying to move into or maintain residence in Brookline affordable housing.

As of early 2022, there were 7,724 households on the waiting list to be placed in a Brookline Housing Authority (BHA) property. The average wait time for a family is six years. Even if a family gets lucky enough to move into BHA, decades of underfunding of public housing in Brookline have led to serious health, safety and quality of life concerns for residents.

Many BHA residents, especially those with children in the Public Schools of Brookline, want to move out of BHA properties into privately-owned affordable units, but a drastic shortage makes this incredibly difficult.

The median home price in Brookline is $1.2 million. The town is failing our lower and middle-income residents; increasing the affordable housing stock needs to become Brookline’s top priority. According to X, it feels as though even the most basic human necessities aren’t being offered.

“Brookline needs to start decreasing the price of housing for people who are just moving in, improving the laundry and heating, and decreasing the amount of mice and rat infestations — even if it was just providing those basic things, that would be really important,” X said.

Affordable Housing Overlay District (AHOD) as a solution

Zoning limits on housing density artificially drive up prices – with increasing demand for housing and stagnant supply, prices increase. If we eliminate single-family zoning, it would lead to the development of luxury condos in the short term. We want affordable housing developers to be able to bypass current restrictive zoning laws. The creative solution to this problem is an AHOD: legislation that allows developers to bypass zoning laws in order to build income-targeted affordable housing.

The purpose of an AHOD is that it incentivizes developers to build housing like this and makes it possible for Affordable Housing Developers to still make a profit, even when the people renting units are low-income.

Income-targeted housing means that the units are reserved for people of very low to moderate incomes, with units dedicated to each income tier. The rent of these households is covered through federal or state subsidies and profits from higher-income renters.

In 2021, Cambridge passed a 100 percent affordable AHOD covering the entire city. Less than a year after it was passed, 350 new affordable homes were approved and confirmed to be built through the AHOD. Many other communities in Massachusetts who adapted AHODs have also found success.

This summer, the BHS Climate and Food Justice Club wrote a proposal to the town to create a study committee to investigate what an AHOD could look like for the town. This November, the resolution will be voted on by Town Meeting, Brookline’s legislative body of 255 elected members.

Why we should care

At the high school, students’ housing situations are often a hidden topic, and many struggle through it alone and face judgment from their peers. X, a current student at the high school, has experienced first-hand the impacts of a poor housing situation.

“My friends did not see my housing situation. That’s the problem with housing: people can’t look inside those buildings and be like, ‘I see you, I see how you’re living.’ When people came to our house, they sometimes judged it, they judged us, or they judged me and my food. I always felt very embarrassed when my friends came over,” X said.

Brookline’s housing situation is incredibly stressful for many of its residents. Housing has become so expensive that many, including families of the high school’s students, cannot buy property or pay rent without sacrificing certain expenses and joys.

“We had to be careful about the things we bought,” X said. “I remember going to a store and being like, I really want these pink boots! They were those white fuzzy boots on the inside, the unicorn boots that every girl wants. My parents were like, we can’t get it. The other kids in my grade didn’t have to sacrifice. It makes you feel left out.”

Additionally, many Brookline educators and town employees cannot afford to live in Brookline. What does it say about Brookline that our educators and town workers can’t live here, can’t vote? When Brookline maintains its current housing situation, it blocks out a large portion of town employees and send a message about this town’s values.

How to get Involved

Sometimes, it feels that Brookline’s housing problems are endless, but there are many ways to help. For those who can, voting in local elections is vital, and even one vote can have an impact. If you can’t vote, you can contact your Town Meeting representatives about specific legislation you support or get involved with local organizations, such as Brookline for Everyone, Brookline for Racial Justice and Equity, Brookline Equity Coalition, and the BHS Climate and Food Justice Club.

As high school students, it’s easy to forget how much power we have to make the change we want to see, especially within Brookline’s government and larger political issues. However, we cannot fall into complacency around the urgent issues impacting our community. From legislative and political advocacy to listening to important stories, we can create a future where our community is livable and accessible for everyone.