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Town housing leaders grapple with how to increase diversity in Brookline

The Coolidge Corner MBTA station. Photo by Zoe Zekos
March 21, 2024  Updated March 24, 2024 at 5:23 p.m.

A declining Black population, growing economic disparities and a reputation for exclusion: How can Brookline contend with those challenges and welcome more Black and Hispanic households?

The town’s Housing Advisory Board discussed that question at a recent meeting, led by Bernard Greene, chair of the town’s Select Board.

To Greene, racial imbalances in Brookline are central to the town’s housing woes.

“We can’t address housing without addressing a history of excluding Black families from Brookline. We can’t change history, but we can make sure our future is different,” he said.

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At the meeting, Greene announced a plan to revive a marketing initiative to incentivize middle and upper income Black and Hispanic professionals to move to Brookline.

The original initiative was launched prior to COVID and included a brochure titled “Town of Brookline: You’re Right at Home Here” that targeted Black and Hispanic communities in Boston and was circulated to universities, hospitals and other employers and local media.

“We began to reach out to regional employees with brochures and follow-ups, and we were getting some good results,” Greene said. But the initiative was sidetracked by the pandemic.

A declining Black population in Brookline

Brookline is becoming more culturally and racially diverse overall, and people of color make up nearly 30% of its population. However, while the statewide Black population grew by 5% between 2010 and 2020, Brookline’s Black population declined from 3.4% to 2.5%, according to the Brookline Community Foundation’s latest Understanding Brookline report.

Black families have been moving to towns like Lexington, Milton and Lincoln instead, despite Brookline’s convenient public transit options and access to Boston, Greene said.

“The small number of Black residents in Brookline is both anomalous and an embarrassment given our proximity to predominantly Black communities within walking distance of the town,” he said.

Select Board chair Bernard Greene, pictured here at a January board meeting, led a recent conversation about increasing diversity in Brookline. Photo by Artemisia Luk

Why the disparity?

When asked why many Black and Hispanic households choose other communities, Greene’s answer was simple: those picking Brookline have the money to live here.

Historic and current policies and practices that have disadvantaged people of color have created economic disparities across racial lines in Brookline.

The median income of white households in Brookline is nearly $50,000 more than that of Black households, according to the Brookline Community Foundation’s new Community Indicators Database. The database also shows that since 2000, Black households in Norfolk County experienced a 17% drop in median household income, while incomes increased for Hispanic, Asian and white households.

In addition, white residents in Brookline are nearly twice as likely as residents of color to “always” have money left over after paying monthly bills, and residents of color are 36% more likely to rent their homes than white residents, according to the Town of Brookline’s updated disparity report from 2022.

Brookline also has to contend with a reputation for being socially and culturally unwelcoming to Black and Hispanic people, an image that has been bolstered by stories of racism.

“There are news articles that portray Brookline as being not hospitable to Black people,” Greene said. While some of it is “just beating down Brookline”, there is also some validity to the stories, he said.

Policy moves

HAB members say that policy changes and legislation can help lessen the gaps.

“Brookline has a chance at doing better, and our wholehearted endorsement of the MBTA Communities Act has helped our public reputation,” said board member Jonathan Klein.

He also pointed to the reduction of the town’s local preference share from 70% (the maximum amount allowed by the state) to 25% in 2020 as a positive step towards making housing more equitable.

Local preference reserves a share of affordable housing for Brookline residents, Town or Housing Authority employees and those with children attending Brookline Public Schools through the METCO program. A higher local preference share limits opportunities for nonresident Black and Hispanic households to find affordable housing in Brookline because it gives a higher chance of selection to the largest population in the town: white residents.

“The reduction was a strong and important step in saying we want to be more open to diverse people from diverse places,” Klein said.

However, the board says there haven’t been enough affordable housing lotteries since the local preference share reduction to get useful information about its impact on diversity.

“People aren’t even necessarily aware of these preferences,” said board member Pam Goodman. “They’re applying all over, so I’m not sure that the reduction impacts whether or not they apply.”

In addition, Brookline should seek to attract people from across the income spectrum, Goodman said, and not only those seeking affordable housing.

A homeownership tax credit could encourage middle income households to buy homes in Brookline, suggested Klein.

The board also planned to look further into Governor Healey’s housing bond bill, which includes provisions for mixed income housing that could bring in more middle income families.

Next steps

Marketing is critical for racial integration, according to Greene. “We have to do more than just build housing and hope for a diverse response,” he said.

People moving into a community desire a certain comfort level, much of which is based in food, culture and religion, pointed out Lynne Sweet, a community member and housing consultant in attendance at the meeting.

“If you look at the gateway cities, people’s culture is there, and they’re comfortable,” she said. “It’s more than just housing.”

It’s important to market to the existing Black community in Brookline and encourage them to reach out to others, Greene added. He suggested it would also be helpful to have a member of town staff provide guidance and action to the initiative in a way that volunteers alone can’t.

“None of this is easy, and a lot of interests have to be balanced. There’s no silver bullet,” he said. “We have to start, and it may take a long time — but if we don’t start, it will take even longer.”

Brookline’s Housing Advisory Board meetings occur over Zoom and are open to the public. Previous meeting recordings and minutes and upcoming meeting agendas can be accessed at the Housing Advisory Board webpage.