Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What Kind of Housing?

What on first blush might seem like an insignificant residential addition to an existing building near Coolidge Corner, has fanned the flames of a long standing debate. The request to "legalize" a four bedroom basement apartment has brought up many issues and concerns. The assessor's database lists the building as a three family. It is set mid-block in a row of attached three story walk-ups, some of which are condos, some rental apartments and others owner-occupied three-families.

This proposal could be an object lesson, giving us an opportunity to examine some deeply held beliefs; some ideals we may or may not prescribe to and some prejudices we may not like admitting we have. It also highlights some serious procedural problems that have simply made matters worse.

First off, we should look at the specifics of the proposal. The building is currently owned by an out of town landlord, who bought the building a year and a half ago and applied for a building permit to rehab the basement apartment, converting a 2 bedroom one bath unit to a 4 bedroom 2 bath unit. Amazingly, he was given the permit. Next door is another rental building. Two doors down, is an owner occupied condominium. All of these buildings are attached and were built together in 1920, and present a unified facade to the street.

Visually, the differences in ownership and occupancy are apparent. The condo building has a beautiful wood door and looks well maintained with fresh plantings gracing the stairway. The building in question's front door is the standard issue aluminum frame and the front yard has a short chain link fence bordering its weed-filled yard. The newly installed electrical boxes were mounted prominently on the front of the building and have already begun to rust.

The current owner of the building bought a three unit building. Of course he must have known about the then two bedroom unit in the basement, but the town didn't. Neither the current owner nor the past has paid taxes on a four unit building. The other similar buildings on this block that do have basement units have small one bedroom units, approximately 680 sq. ft in size. The proposed unit is 1, 848 sq. ft. The notice for the Zoning Board of Appeals Hearing on this application states that a total 5 Special Permits and 8 Variances are required in order for this unit to be legalized. Clearly, this should tell us something about how incompatible this intensity of usage is with the parcels' zoning.

Many residents in this neighborhood (myself included) have complained about the noise and destruction caused by roving bands of drunken students. This is a very real and disturbing phenomena. For those who live near to the party of origin, sleep is an elusive goal. While it is not possible to predict or dictate who will live in this basement unit or any rental housing for that matter, the proposed configuration of many bedrooms in a basement unit with as much parking as possible is geared towards that segment of the rental market. Families tend to seek out buildings with other families and professionals. They value quiet and they also value lots of light and air and are often willing to make do with fewer bedrooms to achieve these benefits.

The perception that the number of students living in North Brookline has increased in recent decades, is in fact true and is reflected in the 1990 and 2000 Census data for tract #4002 (roughly Precinct 2). The number of 18 -24 year olds increased from 672 to 1,078 which, as a percentage of the population is an increase from 12.16% to 18.37%. Meanwhile the number of adults aged 25+ declined from 4, 027 to 3,951, which is, as a percentage from 73% to 67% of the population.

Many individuals who support both affordable housing and the wisdom of building housing in proximity to our transit resources cite these reasons as supporting arguments for this particular conversion. This reveals a lack of attention to the particulars of design, issues of crowding and the functional ramifications to a setting that will come to bear in the immediate vicinity and beyond. Objections to density are usually a result of concerns about crowding, lack of open space, poor space planning and lack of usable and pleasant pedestrian/public spaces. These are issues that are real and will be a result of this proposal. It is an example of density done badly. A three story attached walk-up, as the building is now, and as it is zoned for, is a moderately dense residential setting, one that is adequately dense to support both public transit and neighborhood commercial areas and therefore is not an appropriate location for additional density. An average density of 13 dwelling units per acre, which is what the M1.5 FAR zone is, is a standard level of density acknowledged in urban planning practice as an appropriate target level for Transit Oriented Development.

There are other areas where additional housing density could be much more appropriately accommodated. Primarily, as upper levels in buildings within our business districts. This mixed use configuration has the additional advantage of maximizing the potential for non-auto transportation, due to residents' walking proximity to retail, services, employment and transit.

Another option is the adaptive re-use of existing large single-family homes, through the addition of accessory units, etc. This is something that the Housing Advisory Board is exploring as a policy proposal. This idea addresses several significant trends simultaneously, namely the increasing financial difficulty of maintaining a large home and the aforementioned diminution of household sizes and the need for more, smaller housing options. If the additional housing were located within walking of distance of transit and neighborhood business districts and parking were limited, another sustainable development goal would be met. While there are many aspects of this proposal that must be carefully thought out, I believe it identifies and foresees changes that will occur nonetheless due to trends in demographics, energy costs, economics, etc. It makes sense to get out ahead of the curve and manage the change, rather than having it simply overwhelm us. It would be better to allow and manage accessory units rather than lose a great deal of our housing stock and neighborhood character to teardowns. Without very well articulated formbased codes, new building may not be compatible with existing structures.

Adaptive use of existing homes and structures has significant energy and therefore environmental benefits. While it may be true that our older buildings are not as energy efficient as brand new LEED buildings, structures built before WWII are more efficient than anything built between 1945-2000. Existing buildings have a great deal of embedded energy, and their re-use avoids the destruction and construction of vast amounts of materials. If we can retrofit them with some energy saving materials and technologies, we will have made significant strides towards providing energy efficient and needed housing. We will also preserve our historic architecture where appropriate and maintain the visual qualities of neighborhood streetscapes, avoiding teardowns and incompatibly scaled infill.

We need to think a bit more clearly about just what we mean when we say affordable housing. What segment of the market is truly under served and what segment of the market would we like to accommodate? Who do we want to attract to Brookline? Is it in our best interest to invest in creating housing opportunities for long term residents who feel vested in their community? Is this a goal we can actually do something about? How do our policies and planning practices impact these personal decisions?

As someone who is directly impacted by the influx of students to my area, I do not see it as good town policy to promote the building of housing designed and configured to attract students. Besides the directly negative impacts to the neighborhood, there are consequences to the community from accommodating a larger transient population. It is true that we of course cannot dictate who chooses to rent a particular unit, but we can design our zoning ordinances and building codes, and enforce them in a manner consistent with, the intent to augment our housing stock with units suitable for the growing segment of our population in need of reasonably priced housing. Namely, working families, middle-aged singles, older adults, single parent households, etc. While there are opportunities and programs for low income rental and ownership housing, there is a lack of housing in the middle range. This is the population that is being squeezed out by landlords catering to students, and in terms of potential home owners, middle income residents are loathe to purchase or remain in areas rife with the high levels of student residents. Therefore, the influx of students to an area can dissuade a potential property owner from purchasing a home in that area. The homeowners still there have been dealt a blow to both their quality of life and their property's value.

Sadly, in the case of the basement apartment, some felt that because a mistake had been made in granting the original building permit, that the zoning relief should therefore be granted. While the property owner may have a legitimate complaint about this mistake, this is a separate issue from whether or not this intensity of use is appropriate for this site. This later question is the one before the zoning board of appeals and it is upon this and the criteria for granting special permit and variances, especially the impacts to the neighborhood, that must take precedence.

This occurrence has focused a lens on the need for consistency and diligence in permitting procedures and practices, causing many to feel a lack of trust and security. This is unfortunate and we should openly talk about and address this issue.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Greening Brookline: One Condominium Building at a Time

I live in a three story brick U-shaped courtyard condominium building. Built in 1940, there are aspects of old world construction that give the place its character like the hard wood floors, solid wood panel doors and archways between the rooms. There are also many "art deco" flourishes, such as pink and black bathroom tiles in many of the units, that owners have dealt with in a number of ways over the years. But there is a solidity and thickness to the walls, with their settling cracks and impenetrability that makes hanging art require a masonry drill bit, that you just wouldn't find in newer construction. All in all, for a 68 year old building, its doing pretty well.

For better or worse, 50 unit owners have made an investment in this place. We are stuck with the building and all its foibles and we are stuck with each other! For those of you who also live in a condominium, I know you are shaking your head in a knowing way. For nothing focuses the forces of democracy, nor reveals the depths of petty differences, quite like the joint ownership of ones' home!

Into this setting, comes the realities of climate change, peak oil, environmental concerns in general, and the need to rethink just about everything about how we operate. A similar scenario is being replayed at just about every other condo building large and small across town I am sure. In response, a small group of us have formed an ad hoc committee to tackle the "Greening" of our building. One or two trustees are members. Each of us has our pet issue. Natural lawn care, more recycling, energy efficiency, etc. The number one problem of course are the two extremely thirsty industrial-sized oil-fed boilers rumbling away in the basement. Since we all had to shell out a painfully large extra amount of cash just to keep the things fed this winter, we are in no position to hire "experts" or buy our way to any amazing solutions. No, this is a DIY operation, but we are gung-ho! Motivated and hoping to motivate others. Plus, we happen to know someone who is an "expert" who is equally gung-ho who offered to come take a look at our building gratis and to offer us an initial evaluation and suggestions (Thank-you Jim!).

First on Jim's list, of course, was the "low hanging fruit" of insulation. Our back doors need replacing or at least weather stripping and the single pane glass windows could be covered. Same goes for the bare water pipes in the basement and the skylights in the stairwells. We are planning an "Eco-day" fun work day, with refreshments to get this work done. A bit of camaraderie and elbow grease will be empowering, ultimately saving a bit of energy. Then of course there's the issue of windows. Some of the units purchased new windows as a group a few decades ago. Problem was, it was optional, so not all the units have them. It's unclear whether or not the Trust can mandate new windows, but at a minimum we are hoping for storm windows for everyone. The irony here is that our heating system is so uneven that some people freeze while others boil. So what you get are people opening their windows! even after they shut off their radiators. So, how do you justify sweating (no pun intended) the energy loss of the windows when you have this going on? Ultimately, we would be better off with individual heat/cool/hot water units, running on natural gas in each condo. These would be much more efficient and comfortable, but the conversion cost too high and the energy source not renewable.

We are looking into converting to natural gas, as an interim solution. It is at least cleaner, cheaper and domestic. The National Grid commercial sales rep and installation contractor have been positive and encouraging, as they run around like the energizer bunny trying to service the demand from all those beleaguered oil customers. Indeed, the entire Northeast's greatest and most pressing sustainability challenge is the need to transition from oil heat dependence. We are pushing hard to make this happen before the cold months return.

What about the roof? No one can agree about whether or not it lacks insulation. Should we get an official energy audit? But what really got us excited was Jim's vision of the future. Up on that big flat roof of ours, he saw solar panels that could capture the sun's energy to heat our hot water, (currently heated from those same oil-guzzling beasts). I'm hoping that next year is the year for solar here, as the State legislature has just passed its new energy bill. Included therein are provisions for both rebates, the ability to rent solar panels to own (minimizing capital outlay) and if we are lucky enough to generate extra electricity we can sell it to NStar! Solar panels proliferated across Germany once the government set the buy back price of energy high enough to make investment in the panels worthwhile. Jim told us that with the help of an electrician we could do some of the installation ourselves. We are eager to get started!

On the long-term horizon the vision gets interesting. Jim's idea? Geothermal, zoned for each unit, with solar augmentation. We have the unique advantage here of having a large courtyard where we could sink many wells. How feasible is this? We don't really know. There is one house in Brookline on Winchester Street that derives all its heating/cooling energy needs from geothermal, but it is essentially a newly constructed building.

Here is where our seven member group got into trouble. Suddenly, there were rumors running wild through the building that this group of eco-freaks were going to be assessing everyone immediately for a $1,000,000 geothermal energy system! Our manager declared he wanted nothing to do with us. The shrill emails flew and no one was being rational. Obviously we had a communications problem. Not too surprising. We only have one annual unit owners meeting a year, at the end of the year. No one knows what's going on. It's natural that fear and concern about such major decisions would cause anxiety and fear. So added on to our to-day list was getting every unit owners email and doing a newsletter. The newsletter can share all the research information we turn up, like our rate of recycling, or energy use statistics. We can educate and encourage. We talked about maybe needed a big meeting.

Many owners thought "going green" meant more expensive. Our objectives are focused on both short and long term cost control and adopting practices that will generate less waste, etc. To me, this lack of foresight and denial of reality is the most frustrating part of this. Doing nothing is not a neutral option, it is a recipe for continued waste, inefficiency, escalating costs and increased environmental damage. Any well thought out investment we make at this point to reduce our energy use or shift to renewable energy sources or remove harmful chemicals from our environment will have paybacks that far outweigh the cost. Even if you are not planning on living in your unit for long, which condo is more attractive to the potential buyer, the one that has got its energy needs secured for the future or the one at the complex that has buried its head in the (Middle Eastern) sand? Being able to market our building as a "green" building and have that actually mean something, will be extremely valuable to a great many people for a multitude of reasons.

Changing our cleaning or landscaping company to ones that use earth friendly practices and products could be challenging. We are just now researching our options. A significant obstacle in this regard will be the discounts given for multi-building contracts. Our management company manages many buildings. Being a lone wolf building with a new company could be difficult or costly or both, we shall see.

While we are trying to do as much as we can for ourselves, we are also hoping that as governments respond to the needs for energy evaluation and improvements there will be some assistance coming our way, both technical and financial. Until then, we will carry on, hopefully communicating and exchanging ideas to bring some positive changes. A clearing house of information between condo associations would be a useful thing, so we all don't have to re-invent the wheel!