Although officials say no historical data exists, the anecdotal accounts are overwhelming: Mounting housing costs have pushed out many of the people who work for the town.


Just take a look at your block on trash pick-up day to get an idea of where your sanitation workers live.

“You know who’s from town by the work they do,” said Donelle O’Neal, a Village Way resident and garbage collector and truck driver for the town. “If you don’t see the trash barrels kicked over, you know they live here.”

O’Neal said he doesn’t mean to knock his colleagues, but it’s just an observation he has made as he sees fewer Brookline residents on the payroll.

Although officials say no historical data exists, the anecdotal accounts are overwhelming: Mounting housing costs have pushed out many of the people who work for the town.

At latest count, human resources records showed 36 percent of the 2,579 active town and school employees live in town.

Town Administrator Richard Kelliher, who lives in West Roxbury, estimated close to 50 percent of town employees lived in Brookline around a decade ago.

“This trend of decline of town employees living here has been going on for quite some time,” Kelliher said. “And it’s not abating by any means.”

That analysis troubles Selectman Robert Allen, a Brookline native whose father worked in public works and remembers when “The Point” neighborhood housed mostly town employees.

“A lot of the parents worked at the town garage,” Allen said. “Now those three-deckers they lived in are selling for a million dollars. Those used to be rental properties.”

Like O’Neal, Allen said he believed the town could benefit from providing housing its own employees could afford to live in.

“People who work in the town that they live in, there’s automatically a sort of monetary obligation as well as a moral obligation to take care of the town,” Allen said. “And it’s nice to be able to take care of your own, so to speak.”

But it’s not really that the staff is underpaid, officials and employees said. It’s just that Brookline is disproportionately expensive.

“I grew up here. I want to stay here,” said O’Neal, who said he makes about $20 per hour and feels it is a fair salary, but not enough to buy a home. “I don’t want to rent anymore, but I want a house in Brookline and don’t feel like I should have to move out of my town.”

According to data from the Human Resources Department, 221, or 29 percent, of the 752 full-time and part-time town employees live in Brookline. On the school side, 581, or 32 percent, of the 1,827 full-time school employees live in Brookline.

Overall, Brookline came in as having the most town employees — 804 — followed by West Roxbury, Newton and various Boston neighborhoods.

The farthest commute comes for one school employee who, according to records, drives 107 miles to work from Truro, far out on the arm of Cape Cod.

Steve Bressler, director of Human Relations-Youth Resources, said he feels lucky to have bought his Park Street condo in 1979.

“If we were to sell our condo now, I don’t think we’d be able to find another place here,” Bressler said. “I would say every person who worked for the town in the last 10 years or so wouldn’t be able to buy in.”

When asked who he knew who didn’t live in town, Bressler laughed.

“Everyone,” he said.

According to the MLS Property Information Network, the median price of a condominium in Brookline as of May 29, 2007, was $499,000. Nine years ago, on May 29, 1998, the median price was $247,000, a 102 percent change. Figures are not adjusted for inflation.

In Cambridge, the median condo price now is $455,250. In Newton, it is $475,000. Data shows the median price in Boston is $395,000. Those cities saw increases of 66 percent, 42 percent and 216 percent, respectively, from nine years ago.

Allen, who has a private law practice, also chalked up the problem to spiraling housing costs.

“I think we pay our employees very well. They also give us a lot — they’re doing more with less, compared to when I was growing up,” Allen said. 

“The problem is, for whatever reason — maybe proximity to Boston — Brookline’s value has gone up so dramatically, and the condo market has gone up so dramatically that it’s become untouchable.”

Bruce Genest, a housing project planner for the town, put it more succinctly.

“Your income’s gotta have six figures, and the first one better be a 2,” he said.

And then there are those who can, but don’t.

Virginia Bullock, also a housing project planner in Planning and Community Development, said she wouldn’t trade her three-bedroom house in West Roxbury with a fireplace, hardwood floors and garage for a small condo in Brookline.

“I look on the market periodically to see what they’re going for, and the cheapest you’re going to find a single family for is in the 600s,” Bullock said. “I certainly can’t afford that.”

Also among the 138 town employees who live in West Roxbury is Kelliher, who bought his home in 1973.

“We still have one son living at the house, and things have worked out in a way that I can more than fulfill my responsibilities here,” he said. “It hasn’t so much been a desire to live in Brookline, which is truly a wonderful place, but more a rationale of there has been no reason to leave where I am now.”

Kelliher said the trend was not unique to Brookline and something seen across municipalities.

“You’re not going to be drawing from residents and long-timers in the community the way that was done decades ago,” he said.

Allen said he believed many opportunities were lost when rent control disappeared and the town did not have a Housing Trust Fund, an account it uses now to buy land and subsidize affordable housing projects.

“Everybody was so focused on whether we should have it,” he said. “Rent control was not the right thing for the town of Brookline, but it’s too bad people didn’t have the right vision to see if there was anything we could do to keep those buildings affordable.”

Allen acknowledged the trend is not “ever going to go backwards,” but said officials have a duty to give town employees “preferential treatment” in affordable housing developments.

“Unfortunately, now it’s like scratching a lottery ticket,” he said.

Jessica Scarpati can be reached at