‘McMansions’ force downsizers and young families out of Needham

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When Tom Keating first moved to Needham 45 years ago, he joined a neighborhood full of small Cape Cod houses built in the 1940s for veterans coming home from World War II. The house he bought cost less than $40,000.

With the rise of inflation and demand for housing in the area- specifically in towns close to Boston with good school systems- the cost of housing in Needham has grown significantly since then. But another factor has begun playing a critical role in the increase in home prices over the past few decades, a factor that has changed the look of the town and started to force some senior residents and young families out: McMansions.

McMansions, a pejorative nickname for oversized, mass produced homes that replace the smaller, older housing stock, now populate nearly every residential street in Needham and are often priced well over $1 million.

To some, the rise in these types of homes has made the town a more desirable place to live. To others, they are causing unwanted changes to the character of their neighborhoods.

“One day you’re living in a neighborhood that has small little bungalows and all of a sudden someone puts a two-story house on your street. I think that change makes people nervous,” Keating said.

According to Lee Newman, the director of Planning and Community Development, the trend of McMansions in Needham first started in the ’90s, at which time the average single-family home cost $245,000. By 2016 that number rose to $835,000, a 241 percent increase.

Additionally, an average of 90 to 95 older Needham homes are torn down each year, according to Building Commissioner David Roche, who said he see no sign in that trend stopping.

As a result, fewer and fewer affordable homes are being put on the market in town, effectively preventing younger generations from moving in and eliminating many options for seniors if they need to downsize.

“If you’re an old-time Needham family and you want your kids to stay in this town, that’s difficult,” Roche said. “It also makes it difficult for seniors to stay here. If you’re a senior and you sell your house to a developer, they tear it down. You’ve got a pocket full of change and you want to stay in Needham, but there’s not a lot of places for you to go.”

Arguments in favor of McMansions

While many residents have been vocal about their desire to slow the rise of McMansions, others do not share their point of view.

According to Roche, in a lot of cases the homes that are being torn down are in substandard condition prior to demolition, which he said has played a role in the rise of McMansions as it’s cheaper to tear down and rebuild than to renovate an old home.

“We’re taking down a lot of homes that were not and still aren’t in good shape,” he said. “So in that respect I think it’s a good thing.”

Additionally, by introducing larger homes to these neighborhoods, more tax revenue is generated for the town and the value of surrounding properties increases.

“It’s not going to raise the taxes on the older homes, but we probably doubled if not tripled the tax on the new home coming in. So, as far as the town officials are concerned, how are you going to argue with that?” Roche said.

Downsizing seniors have limited options

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey, 17.7 percent of Needham’s population -or 5,337 people- are ages 65 and older. That number has been steadily rising since 2011 and is expected to continue.

But as Needham’s senior population has grown, the number of affordable places they can go when they want to downsize their homes has shrunk.

Last March, Kindred Living in Needham closed its independent and assisted living facility off of Highland Avenue, which displaced hundreds of residents and left them searching for new homes.

In addition, Needham currently has a limited amount of designated 55-plus apartments- with Chestnut Hollow only offering 28 units for seniors- and does not allow in-law apartments in town. And while some apartment complexes like Nehoiden Glen are federally subsidized to support seniors, the only private options for independent living communities are at North Hill, Wingate Residences and One Wingate Way.

The problem with those options are that they often are filled to capacity and come with a hefty price tag.

Seniors can also apply for public housing, as the Needham Housing Authority has two locations for seniors at Linden/Chamber Street and at Seabeds Way. While these locations are cheaper than Wingate or North Hill, they too have limited capacity and long waiting lists--Needham residents on average wait two to three years for a spot to open up.

This dilemma has caught seniors in Needham who are looking to downsize between a rock and a hard place; either they can cross their fingers and hope to get into one of the few, expensive places in town, or move farther away to find something affordable. And with the continued rise of McMansions, the possibility of finding some place affordable in town gets smaller and smaller.