Harvard-Funded Program Boosting Allston Homeownership

UPDATED: November 7, 2017 at 10:32 p.m.

Kevin Wong Wong Keet was getting frustrated. After watching his monthly rent rise for years, he had decided to look for a home in Allston-Brighton—but four times in a row, he had been outbid.

“Every single time, it was the same story. I’d come close, but someone always came in with a bid—all cash—well above what I was offering,” he said.

Wong Wong Keet’s struggles with what he called a “super aggressive” market is not unusual among prospective homebuyers in Allston-Brighton, a largely residential neighborhood that has in recent years seen an influx of interest from cash-paying investors. These developers often divide houses into individual units for rent, supporting what some residents say is a transient population of renters who can’t afford to put down roots in the area.

“We feel that it’s hard to invest in a neighborhood when you’re only renting because you’re losing money every month and not building equity,” said Galen M. Mook, a member of the Harvard-Allston Task Force.

Seeking to stem the tide of investors, Harvard set aside $3 million of its community benefits package to support the All Bright Homeownership Program, an initiative to buy up homes in the area and resell them to homeowners with an owner-occupancy deed restriction, meaning that the buyer must live on the property. The program, implemented with the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation and the City of Boston in 2015, has so far sold 13 housing units to homeowners.

Wong Wong Keet was one of them. In June of 2017—a year and a half into his search—he came across a new listing in the North Allston area with an owner-occupancy agreement. “It made me think that I would have a better chance of getting it,” he said. Within a week, Wong Wong Keet’s offer on the Litchfield Street home was approved.

Jane McHale, another member of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, said that when she heard that her neighbor received an $800,000 cash offer for his home from an investor, she referred him to the All Bright Home Ownership Program. The program outbid the cash offer and resold the housing unit to “two great neighbors” who plan to stay in the neighborhood long-term, she said.

Roman Lilligren, who moved in next door to the McHales, said he would not have otherwise been able to acquire his current home.

“We lucked out in terms of our timing and what we found. I feel fortunate for that compared to what other people have gone through,” he said.

Still, while Lilligren and Wong Wong Keet represent the program’s success stories, Mook said the program needs to expand to be more effective. He said he has been searching to buy a home for the past four years, but that that prospective Allston homebuyers “don’t really have a chance to compete in a marketplace of investors.”

Additionally, according to Jane McHale’s husband Tim McHale, investors are still often able to outbid the All Bright Homeownership Program.

“They can’t justify going that high,” Tim McHale said. “I don't know how to motivate sellers to do the right thing when they can put an extra $100,000 in their pockets.”

Harvard funded the program as part of its $43 million community benefits package, which it offered to Allston as part of its Institutional Master Plan to significantly expand into the neighborhood. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is scheduled to move across the Charles in 2020.

—Staff writer Sarah Wu can be reached at sarah.wu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_wu_.

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: NOVEMBER 7, 2017

A previous version of this article indicated that Harvard set aside money for the All Bright Homeownership Program last year. In fact, Harvard allocated the money in its 2014 Institutional Master Plan.

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