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Housing puts heavy burden on many in Greater Boston

13 percent of homeowners pay over half their income to keep a roof over their heads

Hopkinton has median household incomes above $100,000 and fewer “severely cost burdened” homeowners.George Rizer for the Globe/File

Although the Massachusetts economy is on the upswing, with strong job growth and low unemployment, many homeowners must stretch their budgets to make their mortgage payments.

In suburban communities across Greater Boston, 13 percent of homeowners shell out more than half of their income to keep a roof over their heads, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, the latest data available. In Boston, nearly 16 percent of homeowners are similarly burdened.

Ideally, authorities say, no more than 30 percent of a household’s income should go toward housing-related expenses: mortgage payments, utilities, insurance, property taxes. Spend more than that, and the household is “cost burdened, and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care,” according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.


But the region’s high housing costs are pushing many families well beyond that threshold, according to a Globe analysis of American Community Survey data for 158 Greater Boston cities and towns. In seven communities, at least one in five homeowners spends 50 percent or more of their income on housing. Those homeowners are considered “severely cost burdened” under federal guidelines.

Lawrence leads the group with nearly 27 percent of homeowners spending at least half of their income on housing. In Halifax, Everett, and Revere, just under 22 percent of homeowners are severely burdened. In Chelsea, Shirley, and Marion, the figure is roughly 21 percent. And Brockton is close behind, at 19.6 percent.

“It may very well mean that they have to cut back on other expenditures because they have a lot less disposable income,” Timothy Reardon, assistant director of data services at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Greater Boston’s land-use planning agency, said of the cost-burdened residents.

The Globe’s analysis of the American Community Survey, a five-year average for 2009-2013, does not focus on costs alone but reflects the effect that housing expenses have on household finances.


The figures include owners of single-family and multifamily homes, as well as condominiums.

Some cities and towns with higher housing prices have fewer severely burdened homeowners, thanks to higher salaries. But even those communities are not immune.

“In some of the more urban communities — like Lawrence, Brockton, and Chelsea — families are stretching to stay in their own communities, whereas in higher-income communities, you have folks stretching to be in a more desirable place,” Reardon said.

In Brookline, for example, 14 percent of homeowners are spending more than half their income on housing. Town Administrator Melvin Kleckner said the community has become a magnet for families looking for excellent public schools and an easy commute to Cambridge or Boston. All three branches of the Green Line run through Brookline, which has a median home value of $658,700, according to the real-estate website Zillow.com, and a median household income of $96,488.

“We’re a nice residential community with vibrant business districts, like Coolidge Corner, Brookline Village, and Cleveland Circle,” Kleckner said. In addition to upscale boutiques and a diverse mix of restaurants, Brookline is home to miles of green space, including Olmsted Park, which is part of Boston’s Emerald Necklace.

The communities with the lowest percentage of homeowners spending more than half of their income on housing tend to be farther from Boston, with higher median household incomes and lower housing prices, Reardon said.


In Brockton, nearly 20 percent of homeowners spend at least half of their income on housing-related expenses: mortgage payments, utilities, insurance, and property taxes.George Rizer for the Globe/File

For example, Georgetown, a residential community 30 miles north of Boston along Interstate 95, and Hopkinton, which sits the length of the Boston Marathon from the city on Interstate 495, both have median household incomes above $100,000 and the lowest percentage of severely cost- burdened homeowners in the region, just above 6 percent. Average home values in Georgetown are under $400,000; in Hopkinton, they are under $500,000, according to state Department of Revenue records.

South of Boston, Abington has the lowest percentage of severely cost-burdened homeowners, at 8 percent.

In relation to its housing prices, Abington, like Georgetown and Hopkinton, has a high median household income, at $78,395. According to state revenue records, the average home value is just under $300,000.

“The main reason home values are lower here is strictly accessibility,” said resident Mike Marella, owner-broker of Century 21 Marella Realty, with offices in Abington and Braintree. “We’ve got a commuter rail, but it’s not the Red Line, so the commute into Boston can be a challenge.”

He said he believes the town will attract more young families once Abington’s new middle-high school opens its doors; the Massachusetts School Building Authority has approved a grant of up to $50.1 million for the project. The town’s schools are among the oldest in its section of Massachusetts.

Abington’s current high school, the newest facility in the district, opened in 1962.

In most of the region’s wealthiest communities, fewer than 12 percent of homeowners are considered severely burdened by housing costs.


They include Weston (average median income from 2009 to 2013, $192,563) and Sudbury ($170,924) west of Boston, Winchester ($131,000) and Boxford ($125,833) to the north, and Westwood ($128,984) and Sharon ($125,625) to the south.

Their situation contrasts sharply with the region’s urban centers and blue-collar communities, where families typically earn a lot less and must allocate a greater percentage of their paychecks to housing.

For example, the median household income is less than $33,000 in Lawrence and less than $50,000 in Everett, Chelsea, and Brockton, but more than 20 percent of homeowners in those cities allocate at least half their income to housing expenses.

Brenda J. Buote can be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.