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More families share quarters as cost of housing soars

Just three years ago, Najwa and Faisal Beydown were living comfortably in a sprawling, four-bedroom, Spanish-style ranch in St. Petersburg, Fla., with two spacious living rooms, a huge family room, and a veranda overlooking a lush garden.

But after two family businesses failed, the West African-born couple lost the house to foreclosure and moved in with their daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren in Jamaica Plain.

The Beydowns' story is not unique. The number of multiple families residing in a single housing unit -- common in many developing countries -- has nearly doubled in Massachusetts in the past 20 years, and is reflective of a national trend.

The Beydowns thought the living arrangements would be a temporary reprieve until they found jobs and got settled. Faisal is now employed, but the six of them are still squeezed into a small, two-bedroom apartment with one bath on a gritty part of Centre Street overlooking the Stop & Shop parking lot.

"It's heartbreaking, my husband and I went from having too much space to living in an 8-by-10-foot bedroom where we can barely fit a bed and a computer," said Najwa, 46. "We can afford $500 a month for rent but apartments are triple that, so we're just living day to day."

A study to be released next month by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute attributes the rising numbers of so-called "subfamilies" to the skyrocketing cost of housing in the Bay State. From 1980 to 2000, Massachusetts went from being a relatively affordable place to live to being the third most expensive state in the nation -- behind Hawaii and California -- to buy a home, the study found. Median prices have nearly doubled since 1990, from $144,900 to $287,000 as of the first six months of this year, according to The Warren Group, which publishes Banker & Tradesman.

The study, "Winners and Losers in the Massachusetts Housing Market," shows that the number of people with children living with other family members rose to 52,008 in 2000, up from 26,685 in 1980 -- a nearly 95 percent increase, according to an analysis of US Census data. During the past 20 years, subfamilies have increased to 3.3 percent of all Bay State's households, which is close to the national average, up from 1.8 percent in 1980. The figure does not take into account childless adults -- recent college graduates or divorcees, for example -- who move in with their parents or other relatives because they cannot afford to live on their own.

"This is the most compelling evidence yet that people are having a very tough time paying for housing and have to double up," said Aaron Gornstein, executive director of Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, a Boston advocacy group that cosponsored the study. "We need more homes that average, working families can afford. And that will require greater political will at the local and state levels."

The housing market's "winners," the study found, were those who bought homes in Eastern Massachusetts in the 1990s prior to the dramatic run-up in home prices. These winners have also refinanced their homes multiple times at historically low interest rates, lowering the cost of homeownership, the study said.

The "losers" are families who can't afford a home or apartment in Massachusetts as rising prices and rents make it harder to keep pace. Even places such as Chelsea, East Boston, Brockton, and Lowell -- communities that have had traditionally been affordable for working families -- are now out of reach for many, especially recent immigrants. The average rent for an older apartment in Greater Boston is about $1,200 a month, according to Northeast Apartment Advisors, a local research firm.

In January, Mirla Luna emigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic with her husband and three children in search of a better education for her children. But Luna, 46, a high school teacher in her native country, soon found that the $500 they had budgeted for rent didn't go far in Boston.

"We looked at one-bedroom apartments, but landlords wouldn't rent to us because there are five of us," Luna said through an interpreter. "It's been harder than we expected, so we're forced to live with a friend's family for now."

Luna and her husband are cleaning houses while waiting for an apartment in public housing. In the meantime, the two families -- four adults and five children -- are cramped inside a three-bedroom on Hyde Park Avenue in Jamaica Plain.

Yet the housing crisis is not limited to immigrants. Escaping an abusive ex-boyfriend, Sonji Brown, who grew up in Mattapan, loaded up a U-Haul for an exhausting 12-hour trip from North Carolina last summer to her sister's three-bedroom cape in Lynn.

Brown, 35, a single parent of seven children ages 2 to 18, is working as a dietitian at a nursing home. She's sharing a home with Vera Brown-Morrison, her husband, and their three children -- 13 people packed into the modest, white clapboard home with one bath on the city's west side.

"Apartment prices are so high, I can't afford my own place yet," said Brown. "I'm on a three-year waiting list for public housing because they say we're not priority. But I'm trying to save as much as I can to get an apartment by the new year."

While the living situation is not ideal, Brown-Morrison says she never had second thoughts about inviting her sister to move in temporarily.

"Family should stick together," she said. "It's a little overcrowded, especially because we only have one bathroom. The kids fight because there's no privacy. But she's my sister and I want to help."

Peter Wood, an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University, said the concept of multiple families under one roof is common worldwide but frowned upon in America, where privacy and individuality are highly valued.

"Joint families are the preferred lifestyle in many nations because there's a belief that kinship is a good thing and holding a family together is a benefit and not an imposition," said Wood. "But not here."

Thomas Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, urged the state to be more aggressive in turning abandoned state land into housing. "The state has been dragging its feet in turning closed state hospitals into needed housing," Callahan said.

Gornstein, of Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, said the governor and Legislature face challenges if they expect to make significant progress in the state's housing crisis.

"We need to remove the zoning restrictions in the suburbs that limit growth and drive up the cost of land if we're ever to build homes for our teachers and municipal workers," said Gornstein. "And we can't build more affordable homes without some state and federal money."

Douglas Foy, chief of Commonwealth Development, said the Romney administration plans to unveil a comprehensive housing initiative over the next few months aimed at doubling the number of homes built in the state each year. Foy declined to be specific but said the package will include incentives for communities to build housing near MBTA stations.

"We intend to help communities through technical, financial, and investment assistance," Foy said. "Unfortunately, many towns have created two- and three-acre zoning in an unwise attempt to save the character of their community, but all they've succeeded in doing is creating sprawl."

Najwa Beydown said moving from her Florida home and into her daughter and son-in-law's apartment has an upside.

"My husband and I get to see my grandchildren every day," she said. "And we love that."

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