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Citizens for Limited Taxation

Deferring the American Dream: Report finds cost
of housing putting home ownership out of reach
Sunday, February 22, 2004
Peter Reuell [508-626-4428] Metrowest Daily News
Growing up in Framingham in the 1970s, Jeff Convery lived the proverbial American dream.

As a teacher and, later, principal at McCarthy Elementary School, Convery's father earned a good living -- enough for a large home near Learned Pond -- while his mother stayed home to raise Convery and his five siblings.

For Convery today, however, the American dream is just that, a dream.

Despite following his father's footsteps into the classroom at Framingham High, owning a home in town is a notion at which he scoffs.

"It's frustrating," he said.  "I can't afford to get a down payment, and I can't afford to buy a house in my hometown."

Instead, Convery, his wife Barbie and their two children, 7-year-old Dylan and Rowan, 2 1/2, live in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in Ashland.

With the rental market exploding throughout the region, even their $1,200 monthly rent has put a strain on their finances.  Each year, Convery estimates, rent alone eats up more than half his take-home pay.

"We're paying maybe $14,000 a year in rent...and we don't own anything," he said, clearly frustrated.

He's not alone.

Statewide, a recent study found, more than a quarter of a million households spend more than half their income on housing, a figure experts say is a potential recipe for disaster.

"There's at least three direct consequences," housing advocate Aaron Gornstein said.

Gornstein, executive director for Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, which co-sponsored the study with the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, said the state today has two housing classes.

For starters, he said, the boom of the mid-'90s sent rent and home prices though the roof, leaving the state today with housing "winners" -- those who were lucky enough to buy at the right time -- and "losers" who are locked out by high prices.

"People are paying too much in rent, and there's no cushion.  You face the risk of being evicted," he said.

The risk of eviction is only one problem among many, though.

Secondly, as housing costs take up larger and larger portions of a family's income, other necessities, such as health care and even food, are too often put off.

"Most people, faced with this situation, do everything possible to pay their rent," Gornstein said.  "There is a correlation between the high rent burden and people going to food pantries."

And to top it off, for thousands of families like Convery's, high rents mean little if any money is put aside to save for a home.

"You get into a situation where it becomes impossible to get into homeownership," he said.

"The American dream has always been you're able to save up, and you buy a home and you're able to build equity and wealth.  And you sell that home and move into a bigger home.  That American dream has been stymied for thousands of households in the MetroWest region."

Convery's housing battles began several years ago, when the couple lived in Framingham.

The couple, with then-newborn Dylan, were living in an apartment on Franklin Street, when the building was sold.

The building's former owner had always kept rents relatively low, but the new owners knew they had a moneymaker on their hands, and quickly raised the rent from $550 to $800 per month.

"We had no recourse," Convery recalled this week.  "We were like, 'You got to be kidding me,' but they gave us the rent (increase) and we gave our notice."

Luckily, Convery's cousin had just bought a home in Hopedale, and offered the family a bargain on a spacious two-bedroom apartment.

"As soon as we moved out, they rented it for $1,200," he said.  "So clearly, they were cutting us a deal, and for that we were very thankful."

Eventually, though, the house was put on the market, forcing Convery and clan to pull up stakes again.  But even with three months to search, they were unable to find an apartment that suited both their needs and their budget.

With things coming down to the wire, the family in August moved to Ashland.  This time, though, even moving wasn't easy.

To come up with the first and last month's rent, security deposit and realtor's fee, the family turned to Convery's parents, who loaned them the $3,000 they needed.

"It was too much to put together, because my parents did it for us," he said, with an unmistakable edge of anger and frustration.

And it wasn't long before the steep rent began to make life difficult.

"For the longest time, we were trying to keep her out of work," Convery said, of his wife.  "We just didn't want to pay someone else to raise our kids.

"But the bills were piling up, so she went back to work a month ago."

To make ends meet, Barbie works three nights a week and all day Saturday as a dental receptionist.

With their budget razor-thin, the family today does without even simple luxuries, Convery said.

"We really tightened the belt," he said.  "We were getting movies from the library, and going out to eat was a pizza once a month, maybe."

Even something as simple as a romantic night out for Valentine's Day takes some doing.

"My parents are going to watch the kids, so there's the free babysitting," Convery said.  "And I just did a two-hour focus group that gave me 75 bucks, so yes, we're going out to dinner, and we have movie passes from Christmas, so we're going out to a movie.

"But again, (we've) got to finagle stuff like that," he said.  Barbie quickly interjected, "But more often than not, it doesn't happen."

Stories like those hardly surprise Michael Goodman, who co-authored the Donahue Institute report.

Throughout most of the '90s, he said, as housing prices spiked in the state, incomes kept pace.  The problem?

"Most of the increases were experienced by households that had more than one person working," Goodman, the institute's director of Economic and Public Policy Research, said.  "The bottom line is they're working harder and harder to stay even.

"So in a situation where a household is paying 50 percent of their income (for housing), they may have very hard choices to make about whether or not certain bills get paid, prescriptions get filled -- the quality of life suffers."

That precarious balance is made all the riskier by the economy's current uncertainty.

"You've got people who absolutely rely on those two incomes and if one or both members of a household lose their job, it doesn't take very long for it to become a very serious predicament," Goodman said.

"As long as your income is coming in, you can manage, but in a world where increasingly Massachusetts families need two incomes, that second income is not for extras, it's to make ends meet," he continued.  "It's how people afford these mortgages in the first place."

What, then, can be done?

The answer, Gornstein believes, is simple: Build more homes.

"I think we have to increase the supply of affordable housing for different income groups," he said last week.

With restrictive local zoning codes, suspicious local officials and opposition-minded neighbors to deal with, though, accomplishing that is easier said than done.

In most towns, Gornstein said, one-acre zoning for house lots has encouraged sprawl, and absorbed what little land is left in some communities.  The solution, he said, is to build with more density, and use state laws to produce more affordable housing.

"It is a tall order, but there is a track record of success," he said.  "It requires community education about what affordable housing looks like and who lives in it.

"Yes, people are opposed to the development in the beginning, but once they're built, the opposition goes away.  It's been four decades since we built public housing.  What's being built today is mixed income, it's well-designed, generally."

Although new and affordable housing has been a priority of both Gov. Mitt Romney and the Legislature, funding remains a problem, Gornstein said.

But the market seems to trump even those efforts.

"It's like a sorcerer's apprentice that just seems to grow and grow without any end," Marlborough Planning Director Al Lima said.

Over the past decade, Lima said, the city made a conscious effort to construct affordable single-family homes and apartments, but the market has outpaced their efforts at every turn.

In one case, he said, the city supported the construction of small single-family slab homes on smaller that usual lots, hoping they would provide an affordable alternative to families looking to buy a home.

Originally, the homes sold for about $90,000.  Today, Lima said, they're priced at about $300,000.

"It has to stop someplace," he said.  "You feel like the Dutch boy with your finger in the dike.

"There's been a release valve and that has been that people are moving farther and farther west.  You see more and more people with Rhode Island license plates in Marlborough because that's where they can afford to buy a house."

To the south, in Bellingham, the feeling is much the same.

"I can tell you there's an overall feeling that housing costs way too much in Bellingham," Town Planner Stacey Wetstein said.  "I don't think I can afford affordable."

And while she believes zoning changes can help, like Gornstein, Wetstein believes they'll be a tough sell to worried homeowners.

"You just have to have an open mind about it," she said.  "When you say affordable housing, some people might worry you might mean low-income housing. I don't think that's necessarily true, but you might have to overcome all those built-in prejudices."

Prices have climbed so steeply that Convery has simply stopped looking; the aggravation was simply overwhelming.

"It's absurd," he said.  "There's a tiny house across the street from my parent's house.  How much would I love to buy a house across the street from where I grew up?"

When the house hit the market, he checked on the price: $250,000.

"There are slab houses (in Framingham).  There's no basement, some don't even have a second floor, those are going for two and three hundred thousand dollars.  I..." he stopped himself, and shook his head.  "I don't know.  I don't get it."

In the end the market may force Convery and family to do what thousands of others have done: leave Massachusetts in search of greener pastures.

"We've always both sort of entertained the idea of Vermont," he said.  "It's a lot cheaper up there, as far as buying land.

"Last year, around hiring time, I sent a lot of resumes out, and I'll do the same again this year."

Though leaving isn't a choice either relish making, it may be one the Converys say may be one they have to take.

"I don't want to leave.  I enjoy teaching at Framingham very much.  I like the community, our family's here," he said.  "But we would like to own a home, for us and our kids, and if that means we're forced to go somewhere else where it's more affordable, perhaps that's the hard decision that we're going to make."

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