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Harold Brown, Boston's Workforce Housing Pioneer, Dies At 94

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Boston has lost its apartment king. 

Harold Brown, the founder and longtime head of real estate firm The Hamilton Co., died Sunday at his home. He was 94. 

Harold Brown, Boston's Workforce Housing Pioneer, Dies At 94
The Hamilton Co. Chairman and CEO Harold Brown and R Brown Partners owner Ronald Brown, Harold's brother, at a Bisnow event in 2018

The real estate developer spent a 65-year career amassing a vast Boston apartment portfolio. The Hamilton Co. owns 5,600 units of multifamily housing and 1.3M SF of commercial space. 

Brown purchased his first property at 1292 Commonwealth Ave. for $20K in 1954 and marveled in recent years as the average development cost for a single residential unit in Greater Boston rose to $450K. Not known for sugar-coating his words, Brown never expected Boston to return to its affordable past. 

“How can you bring [costs] down? You can’t. You can’t avoid it,” Brown told Bisnow last year. “It’s like death and taxes.”

While many developers focused on luxury multifamily projects downtown and in the Seaport in recent years, Brown steered his company to pursue housing for working-class families, students and medical professionals. By the time of his death Sunday, Brown had amassed more than $2.3B in residential and commercial real estate, according to The Hamilton Co. 

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the developer; he had to build his empire twice. 

He had an estimated $500M net worth before declaring bankruptcy in 1991 amid the worst recession the country had seen in decades. Brown’s filing, which entailed about $675M in loans and more than 30 banks, was the largest bankruptcy ever filed by an individual in Massachusetts history. 

After satisfying creditors and exiting bankruptcy court, Brown rebuilt the empire, buying back many of the buildings he had lost during the recession. 

“The thought that comes to mind and was most impressive about Harold Brown was, not only did he create a housing empire once, but he did it twice,” Mount Vernon Co. Chairman and CEO Bruce Percelay told Bisnow via email. “This was as much a statement about persistence and perseverance as it was about being a real estate magnate and is a lesson for all of those who view adversity as a mere bump in the road.”

Harold Brown, Boston's Workforce Housing Pioneer, Dies At 94
The Hamilton Co. Chairman Emeritus Harold Brown

Brown’s second act capitalized on the forward-thinking business acumen of his first. The Brookline native went to MIT before joining the U.S. Navy and serving in World War II and the Korean War. 

He later returned home and began to buy up buildings at low prices and held onto them, especially in student-laden areas like Allston-Brighton. 

The developer’s early investment there gave The Hamilton Co. an edge on workforce housing in recent years. Brown maintained he could offer Seaport-style accommodations in new Allston projects with rents 30% less than competitors due to his ability to subsidize costs on property his company already owned. 

“If you have to buy the land, you can’t do it,” he said in 2017. “We can rent them and still make out."

He also repeatedly told attendees at recent Bisnow events how he was looking forward to the next downturn as an opportunity for further investment into his portfolio. Jokingly, he would always refuse to share his insight as to when that downturn might be. 

He stepped down in September from his role as chairman and CEO, handing over his chairman title to longtime associate Guilliaem Aertsen. The chief executive position is now split between Brown’s son, Jameson Brown, and Andrew Bloch, who serve as chief operating officer and chief financial officer, respectively. 

Brown is survived by his wife, Maura Nolan Brown; Jameson; and two daughters, Harley Oliver Brown and Lisa Brown Piper. He also leaves behind his brother, Ronald Brown. 

“Harold’s love for, and commitment to, real estate and to his hometown was lifelong and infectious to all lucky enough to know him,” Aertsen said in a statement. “He will be greatly missed.”