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.


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