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Report shines light on Brookline’s financially vulnerable

The Coolidge Corner T stop in Brookline. Photo by Zoe Zekos
June 6, 2023

Roughly one in four Brookline residents is financially vulnerable, living in households with incomes well below the living wage for Norfolk County, according to a new report coming out next week from the Brookline Community Foundation.

More than one-third of Brookline residents spend over 30% of their income on housing.

These are among the most striking trends noted in the foundation’s new Understanding Brookline report, which updates its study of demographics and poverty from the 2010 U.S. Census. This time, using data from the 2020 census and other recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the foundation focuses on income inequality and economic challenges in a community that’s widely seen as an affluent suburb.

“Some people are really, really struggling to survive, and it’s not always visible,” said Aba Taylor, the foundation’s executive director.

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Brookline Community Foundation executive director Aba Taylor

While overall poverty has declined from 13.1% in 2010 to 10.2% in 2020, poverty among residents age 65 and older grew from 7.8% in 2010 to 10.7% in 2020.

And where Brookline’s racial and ethnic diversity increased over the decade, the added diversity comes from the growth in Brookline’s Asian and Latinx communities. The town’s Black population declined from 3.4% in 2010 to 2.5% in 2020.

Like the census data on which it is based, the report largely excludes assets, such as home ownership, in its economic calculations. The foundation acknowledges that the poverty statistic is likely inflated by students with low incomes who receive support from family or financial aid, but notes that not all students are protected by these economic cushions.

There’s a “hunger and a readiness to have this data, to be able to inform strategy, potential policies, budgeting, really prioritizing the needs in the community,” Taylor said.

The role of housing costs

Roughly 36% of Brookline residents, nearly 25,000 people, are housing burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage payments, according to the report. They must often make tough choices about how much they can save and which essentials to skip buying.

Almost 52% of housing units in Brookline are renter-occupied.

Camellia Natalini is among the town’s many renters. The two-bedroom apartment in Chestnut Hill that she rents for $3,200 a month consumes about 40% of her income, she told Brookline.News.

Natalini moved here with her daughter from Reading, Pennsylvania in 2019. She owned a home there, and her mortgage payments were less than a third of her rent in Brookline, she says.

“I understood certain things were going to be more, but maybe underestimated how much more,” she said. “It’s nuts, and yet I feel incredibly fortunate because my landlord hasn’t raised my rent since I moved here.”

Through Covid and the contraction in the tech industry, Natalini, who works in software sales, says she’s been laid off three times in recent years. She chose Brookline for its schools, and her daughter, she said, is thriving at the Heath School. But the financial stress weighs on her.

“It’s really hard for me to save money, period. There’s not much left for me to save, after you pay for all the things that are important. You run through any meager savings you might have, and max out the credit cards,” she said.

“I find myself sacrificing a lot for myself. Do I really need new clothes? I’ll just keep wearing this; it’s fine. Or sacrificing my time. Finding odd jobs here and there.”

The median gross rent in Brookline in 2020 was $2,452, according to the report, citing census data. To not be housing burdened, a typical renter household in 2020 would have needed an annual income of $98,080.

Rents have risen since the census, especially as the pandemic has receded. The report cites data from Zillow that finds the median rent for an open-market apartment in 2023 is $3,900.  A household would need an annual income of $140,400 to afford that rent without being housing burdened.

A living wage

Although median household income in Brookline rose in recent years, the increase did not keep pace with the growth in the cost of living, the foundation reports.

“Incomes are growing, but not equally and not enough to keep pace with the rising costs of housing and other basic needs. This speaks to a wider national trend whose impacts we are seeing here in Brookline: the so-called hollowing out of the middle class,” the report states. “It becomes increasingly difficult for residents to maintain economic stability while remaining in our community.”

Median household income rose in Brookline from $115,356 for 2012-2016 to $122,356 in 2017-2021, according to census data.

Using MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, the report cites an annual income of $114,546 that a single adult supporting two other individuals in Norfolk County would have needed to cover basic needs. Calculations updated to 2023 put that number at $146,203.

Median household income in Brookline varies by race and ethnicity. White households posted a median income of $130,879 in 2017-2021, the report notes, compared with $119,429 for Latinx households, $102,942 for Asians and $83,674 for Black households.

Senior poverty rising

For all its reputation as an affluent community, the poverty rate for Brookline residents age 65 and older is a full percentage point higher than the 9.7% poverty rate for elderly residents of the Boston area.

Even if they don’t meet that threshold, there is a significant population of seniors in Brookline who are financially vulnerable, said Ruthann Dobek, director of the Brookline Council on Aging and Brookline Senior Center.

“There’s a whole host of seniors that we deal with daily, that maybe are not technically at the poverty level, but who we see that are financially insecure and really in distress,” she said.

The Senior Center recently served as a site for the Lovin’ Spoonfuls food program, which redistributes food from grocery stores to those in need. As many as 150 Brookline seniors visited the center weekly to collect food from the program, Dobek said.

A community refrigerator on Station Street. Photo by Zoe Zekos

“We were talking to people who were running out of food at the end of the month because of the high cost of living,” she said.

Renee Holesovsky, 65, lives in affordable senior housing owned by 2Life Communities. After failing to get access to an affordable apartment in several housing lotteries and bouncing from apartment to apartment in Brookline, she finally won a spot in her current “wonderful” building.

Holesovsky moved here from Amherst in 2014 after her mother died. Unable to work for the last ten years following a concussion, her income now consists of disability payments and a small pension from a previous job at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

She’s learned to navigate the various systems that exist to aid low-income people in Brookline, she says, but it is not easy for her and others like her.

“One of the challenging things is learning how to get help, how to get resources,” she said. “Sometimes even when you present people with information, they’re so overwhelmed that they can’t follow through.

“When a lot of people think of Brookline, they think of Brady and those guys. It’s not like that really.”

Changes in Brookline’s makeup

Another trend the report chronicles is a shifting racial and cultural landscape in Brookline.

The town’s population grew by about 7.5% from 2010 to 2020, from 58,732 in 2010 to 63,191 in 2020, although it’s possible that growth has been blunted somewhat since the start of the pandemic.

The town is also more “culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse than it was in 2010,” the report says.

The number of Brookline residents born outside of the United States is 31%, up from 26% in 2010. Nearly a third of Brookline residents age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home.

And roughly 30% of Brookline’s population identifies as a race other than white, up from about a quarter in 2010. Asians accounted for 17.8% of Brookline’s population in 2020, up from 15.6% in 2010, and the Latinx population grew from 5% to 6.6,% of the total.

Taylor, the foundation’s executive director, said she’s struck by the declining number of Black residents.

“For me as a Black person working in Brookline, there’s a stark reality of how small of a demographic it already is,” Taylor said. The decrease, she added, “sends up some flags, or at least invites a question and exploration.”

Overall, the majority of residents self-identify as white, the report notes, but that number has declined from 76.7% in 2010 to 70% in 2020.

The full Understanding Brookline report will be published next week by the Brookline Community Foundation. Later this year, the foundation is planning to launch an open access database with 50 different community indicators using data from the census and other sources.