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Center for Real Estate researchers redefine housing ’affordability’


Brookline--town of chic boutiques--an “affordable” community?

Yes, it is, relatively speaking. That’s according to new data presented by Henry Pollakowski, principal research associate for MIT’s Center for Real Estate, and his colleagues at the Third Annual Housing Affordability Conference in Kresge Little Theatre on May 22.

Pollakowski, along with Jeff Zabel of Tufts University, introduced a new index of housing affordability weighted to reflect a community’s proximity to jobs, the quality of its schools and its proportion of publicly accessible open spaces.

“This is not the way it’s usually done,” Pollakowski acknowledged.

The basic concept is that a house out in the far suburbs may be less expensive but will probably require its owner to make a long daily commute, given that jobs remain concentrated in the central cities--in Boston proper, in the case of the metro Boston area. So the affordability of the remote location is offset in part by commuting costs. And if poor schools hold down a town’s housing prices, that affordability will be offset either by private school fees or lower earnings over a lifetime by the homeowner’s children.

Brookline may be not inexpensive, but once there, residents have access to good schools and employment opportunities. Brookline also offers good access to open spaces, which is the researchers’ proxy for good environmental quality.

“We are well on our way to completing an index for all of New England,” Pollakowski told his audience.

The research team, which is headed by Lynn Fisher, assistant professor of urban studies and planning, used rates of passage of the 10th-grade MCAS exam as the metric for determining good schools. And because good schools correlate so strongly with low crime rates, the school ratings were a useful indicator for safe neighborhoods, even for households without children.

The researchers’ methodology involves starting with U.S. census data on available housing stock and drawing housing values from assessor’s parcel report data contributed by the Warren Group, one of the sponsors of the research. “This is a lot of work, which is probably why it hasn’t been done before,” Pollakowski said.

He described a plan for an online user interface being developed in conjunction with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning: “What we’re aiming for is for somebody to be able to go online, tap in the number of people in their household and their income and out will pop out a map which will tell you how many units exist in the metropolitan area that will be affordable to you … This is very exciting.”

Not so exciting, from the perspective of those hoping for greater housing density in the suburbs, were the statistics presented on suburban residential land use.

“Density has been getting lower and lower. We found only four communities where that was not the pattern,” Pollakowski said.

Between 1998 and 2004, nearly 40,000 new single-family houses were built in the metro area outside Boston proper. The median lot size was 0.86 acres--and the average was somewhere between 1.1 and 1.2 acres.

“That’s nearly 50,000 acres--about the size of the city of Boston,” Pollakowski said. “This gives an indication of the way land is being tied up in ways that are not likely to change.”


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