BROOKLINE — It’s a modest corner lot on a hilly street, the site of a shuttered nursing home with parking out back. But plans for this eight-tenths of an acre dramatically illustrate a key reason why housing remains so expensive in Greater Boston.
The nursing home is on Corey Avenue in Brighton, in the city of Boston. The parking lot is on Jordan Street, in the town of Brookline. And when it comes to what can be developed on the lot, that distinction apparently makes all the difference.
Developers last week filed plans for an unusual project on the site, which is split in half by the city line. On the Boston side, they’d put in a four-story building, with 35 apartments. In Brookline, they’d build two single-family homes.
The split-development proposal is an example of the disparity between what kind of homes can be built throughout the region, depending on the city or town. Housing advocates say it’s a major contributor to the unrelenting housing crunch.
“You cross a municipal boundary and the rules change,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which works on affordable housing development. “Places have more or less appetite for housing development, and that has an impact.”
The former Corey Hill Nursing Home is on a street of brick two-family houses in Brighton, a few blocks from busy Commonwealth Avenue and the MBTA’s Green Line. Developer Jeffrey Feuerman wants the Boston Planning & Development Agency to change the nursing home zoning to allow for a four-story apartment building, of mostly one- and two-bedroom units.
The parking lot on the back half of the site, in Brookline, is on a street that climbs up Corey Hill and is lined with large single-family homes. It’s zoned for single-family homes, and Feuerman told the BPDA he’d like to build two of them — architectural images show three-story houses with sloping roofs and sizable front yards — “designed to further buffer the proposed project from Brookline’s residential neighborhood.”
Feuerman, who paid $4 million in April to buy the site, according to property records, declined to comment on his project. “Write what you want,” he said. “Nothing good ever comes of talking about it.” He did not respond to follow-up e-mails.
Plans for the Boston side of the property were scaled back after meetings with Brighton neighborhood groups, Feuerman wrote in his filing, but 35 apartments will be enough to help address the strong demand for more housing, he argued. It’s the sort of location — walkable, middle-density, near the T — that housing advocates say can support more residential development, something desperately needed if Boston and surrounding municipalities hope to build their way out of a regionwide housing shortage.
“Every municipality that shares in the prosperity of the region should do their share on housing,” Ziegler said. “Some communities get to reap the benefits of regional growth without really contributing to supporting that growth.”
That’s a point Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has been making, as well.
At a recent event to underscore his administration’s efforts to do something about housing costs, Walsh’s aides passed out figures highlighting construction in Boston and in other cities and towns inside Route 128.
From 2011 through 2018, according to Census Bureau data, Boston permitted 24,953 units, the vast majority in mid-size and larger buildings. Brookline permitted 274, nearly half of them single-family homes. Even taking into account Brookline’s much smaller size — geographically, it’s about one-eighth of Boston’s landmass — that’s a striking disparity.
The census data echo earlier reports from economists and regional planning organizations that show building is concentrated in a handful of cities and towns.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit Boston Foundation found that half of new multifamily development in all of Massachusetts from 2013 to 2017 took place in just four municipalities: Boston, Cambridge, Everett, and Watertown.
And a recent report from a coalition of housing groups showed how a thicket of zoning laws — a “paper wall,” as the study’s author called it — block or downsize apartment building all over Eastern Massachusetts.
Governor Charlie Baker has for months pushed legislation that would make it a little easier to change zoning laws. It would lower the vote margin needed to do so from two-thirds of a city council or town meeting to 50 percent plus one — a move that Walsh, among others, has called a good first step toward spreading development more evenly across the region. But progress has been slow.
No matter what happens on Beacon Hill, said Boston housing chief Sheila Dillon, expecting one city to provide so much of the new housing doesn’t make sense.
“This is a regional issue,” Dillon said. “We absolutely need other cities and towns to build multifamily housing. Boston can not bear this alone.”