The High Price of Elite Housing

One hundred thirty years ago, in 1891, Mr. A.E. Parker built a house at 60 Wicklow Street in Cambridge. A 2-1/2 story wood frame building that he shared with his wife. The building first appears in the 1894 Bromley Atlas, another yellow outline in the growing city of Cambridge.

By the time the next Bromley Atlas was published, in 1903, Wicklow Street had become Stearns Street. Eventually, it was designated part of Neighborhood Nine, a sort of shorthand for saying, neither here nor there. Stearns Street’s an equidistant walk from Cambridge’s long-time tony, Tory, Brattle Street; Victorian-fashionable Avon Hill; and the rough-and-tumble worker housing near Alewife’s clay pits.

The Harvard/Radcliffe Archive of Cambridge Buildings and Architects includes no other references to 60 Stearns Street. Little wonder, since the ordinary building on its meager lot hardly warranted special attention. At some point it was chopped into a two-family residence. It got wrapped in aluminum siding.

In the early 1990’s, before my family moved to the hinterlands of Cambridge—Strawberry Hill—I looked at a couple of houses on Stearns Street. Not this particular address, but buildings like it. Priced in the $200-$300 thousand range. An astronomical price for century-old workingman’s digs, chopped into mazes, cracked plaster covered with thin wood paneling, creaky floors slathered with shag carpet.

The long-standing family that owned 60 Stearns Street finally sold it in 2018. By then, the city assessed the 4,457 square foot piece of land at $791,300 and the structure at $446,200. Though the city fell far short of the market. A developer bought the property for $1,648,000 and promptly tore the building down. That’s $370 per square foot for land alone.

As the pandemic waned, and I returned to the gym, I noticed a new house on the site in final throes of construction. I traded jokes with the Portuguese guys laying pavers; Hispanics installing the landscaping. We laughed that none of us could ever live there, and wondered what kind of people would.

In June 2021, the new 60 Stearns Street came on the market. The 4,200 square foot, single family, five-bedroom, 5.5 bath house is marketed as “the world’s first Victorian passive house.” I guess, when you’re trying to sell a big house on a small plot with no appreciable view for $4.5 million, you’ve got to work the lingo.

Apparently, the lingo works, as the house was featured on Boston.com, June 15, 2021 as ‘Luxury House of the Week,” and merited an article in Harvard Magazine.

As I walked by one recent sunny morning, a father walked onto the second-floor deck with his young daughter, prospective buyers, obviously touring. “Do you think you could be a princess here?” I heard the man say. (Really. I couldn’t make up that line if I tried.) Thereafter, an older gent, the grandfather, stepped onto the deck. And I beheld a vision of generational wealth.

I don’t know whether that family purchased the house. If not someone like them did: 60 Stearns Street went under contract within thirty days. The City of Cambridge will make out well financially: the new property taxes are estimated at $7,439 per year, are almost twice what they were. But socially, culturally, I fear our city will be further diminished, as it becomes more impossible, one property at time, for people of average means—actual workers—to afford to live here.

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, theawkwardpose.com is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog, www.howwillwelivetomorrw.com, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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2 Responses to The High Price of Elite Housing

  1. jerome kirk says:

    This is my first visit. I just read your essay in Huffington Post (to which this observation is relevant). I was impressed as much by your thinking as by your virtue–so I popped in here. (I’ll be back.)
    What worries me is the “bubbleness” of real-estate prices. Financial plans (irrespective of their objectives) are subject to bizarre vulnerabilities. Prices of houses, after all, are dictated by the bank, which arbitrarily decides how much it will lend, and is naturally incented to maximize the “value” of intangible (“safe”) assets like stocks (which no longer signify “ownership” any more than a successful bettor automatically comes to own the winning horse) and real estate, for which population growth assures demand. Thus, the historically consistent long-run rise in both–empirically through a sequence of boom/crash cycles. As in 2008, long-run plans of all but the very largest investors (and lenders) uniformly experience unexpected but catastrophic collapse in the crashes. I have no idea how to defend anything against such predictable glitches, but I’m pretty sure denial is not the optimal strategy.

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