Multi-family Housing By Right

For Arlington’s Nov 2020 Special Town Meeting, my colleague Ben Rudick filed the following warrant article:


To see if the Town will vote to amend the Zoning Bylaw for the Town of Arlington by expanding the set of allowed residential uses in the R0 and R1 zoning districts with the goal of expanding and diversifying the housing stock by altering the district definitions for the R0 and R1 zoning districts; or take any action related thereto.

(Inserted at the request of Benjamin Rudick and ten registered voters)

The Inspiration

Our goal with Article 18 is to allow two-family homes, by right, in two districts that are exclusively zoned for single-family homes. This is similar to what city of Minneapolis and the state of Oregon did in 2019. The motivations fall into three broad categories: the history of single-family zoning as a mechanism for racial segregation, environmental concerns arising from car-oriented suburban sprawl, and the regional shortage of housing and its high cost. We’ll elaborate on these concerns in the following paragraphs, and end with a proposed main motion.

Single-family zoning as a mechanism for racial segregation. Single-family zoning began to take hold in the United States during the 1920’s, after the Supreme Court declared racially-based zoning unconstitutional in 1917. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover encouraged cities and towns to adopt single-family zoning ordinances, effectively substituting segregation based on race with segregation based on economic status. The idea was furthered by the Home Owners Loan Corporation of America’s (HOLC’s) redlining maps (created between 1935 and 1940), and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA’s) mortgage insurance policies from 1934–1968. The HOLC designated areas with black populations as “hazardous” and actuarially risky, and the FHA used these maps when making underwriting decisions. In short, the FHA was in the business of underwriting loans to white home buyers in white neighborhoods.

Of Arlington’s 7,998 single-family homes, 4,080 (51%) were built during 1934–1968 (per Arlington Assessor’s data). The FHA was the primary mortgage underwriter during this time, and we believe it is reasonable to expect that a substantial number of these homes were originally purchased with FHA mortgages. Put another way, most of our single-family housing was likely built according to FHA guidelines of “avoiding inharmonious mixing or races”, aka segregation. Arlington’s population was 99% white in 1970 and even higher during previous decades. We certainly met the criteria of being a white community.

We believe it’s important to recognize this history, and to have a conversation about how we might restore a balance of fairness.

Environmental concerns. When compared with their multi-family counterparts, single-family homes are less energy efficient, more land intensive, and are associated with higher carbon emissions due to ransportation. Car transportation is a useful analogy; having everyone drive in their own car is more carbon-intensive than carpooling (two-family homes), which in turn is more carbon-intensive than taking the bus (3+ unit buildings). Maps created by Berkeley’s Cool Climate Project show this in a clear way: per household carbon emissions are lower in urban areas than they are in the surrounding suburbs. (Note that authors of the Berkeley report do not advocate getting rid of suburbs, but they do state that suburbs will require different carbon reduction strategies than urban areas).

We believe it is more environmentally responsible to build additional homes on sites that are already developed, rather than (say) going out to the suburban fringes along route 495 and clearing half-acre lots. If we do not provide ample housing within Arlington and other inner-ring suburbs, new workers will likely live further out and have longer, more carbon-intensive commutes. Climate change is a crisis, and our response must involve changing how we live, and that includes ending the twentieth-century pattern of suburban sprawl.

The shortage and high cost of housing. Since 2010, the fifteen cities and towns in the Metro Mayor’s coalition have added 148,000 jobs and 110,000 new residents, but have only permitted 32,500 new homes; this has added to a housing shortage that’s been growing for decades. The imbalance between supply and demand has contributed to rising prices and a very hot market. In 2019, the median sale price for homes in Arlington was $821k. We do not expect construction to be a complete solution to Arlington’s housing costs, but we do believe it is a necessary step in meeting rising demand and counteracting rising costs.

Article 18 is most likely to influence the cost of newly-constructed homes. Newly-constructed single-family homes typically sell in the $1.2M–1.5M range while condominiums in new duplexes typically fall into the $800k–1.1M range. These duplex units are not cheap, but they offer a price point roughly four hundred thousand dollars less than new single-family homes.

We also believe our proposal directly addresses three concerns raised by last year’s multi-family proposal (aka 2019 ATM Article 16):

  1. Concentration. Last year’s proposal would have concentrated new housing around the town’s business corridors, and Massachusetts Avenue in particular. Article 18 will spread new housing across the majority of the town, as 60% of Arlington’s land area (and 80% of its residentially-zoned land) is currently zoned exclusively for single-family homes (figures provided by Arlingtons Department of Planning and Community Development).
  2. Height and Shadows. Last year’s proposal would have allowed taller buildings along the commercial corridors; there were concerns about increased height, and the shadows new buildings might cast. Article 18 makes no changes to our zoning bylaw’s dimensional regulation; homes built under this bylaw could be no larger than homes we already allow, by right.
  3. Displacement. Last year’s proposal drew concerns that businesses and apartment renters would be displaced by new construction. Article 18 applies to districts that are exclusively zoned for single-family homes. 95% of our single-family homes are owner-occupied, and can only be rebuilt or renovated with the owner’s consent. We believe this minimizes any risk of displacement.

Finally, we expect the board will be interested in the number of homes that might be added under this proposal, and the potential impact on the school system. We’ll attempt to address those questions here.

Arlington’s report on Demolitions and Replacement Homes states an average of 27 rebuilds or substantial renovations per year, averaged over a ten year period. For the purpose of discussion, we expect the number of new homes added under this proposed bylaw change to be somewhere between half and double that amount, or 14–54 homes/year. Arlington has 7,998 single-family homes so this is a replacement rate well under 1%/year. It will be nothing like the 500 new homes/year that Arlington was building during the 1920s.

Assessing the impact on the school system amounts (in part) to estimating the number of new school students created by the addition of 14–54 homes/year. One can conceivably see this playing out according to three scenarios. Scenario 1 is simply “by the numbers”. The Housing section of Cambridge’s Alewife District Plan estimates one new student for every 17 new homes (see pg. 145), and the economic analysis of Arlington’s industrial districts gives a net increase of one new student for every 20 new condominiums (see slide 49). Both work out to an increase of 1–3 students per year for the addition of 14–54 homes. This is substantially smaller than past enrollment growth, and something the schools should easily be able to handle.

Second, one could imagine a scenario where elementary school enrollment is in modest decline, as students who entered Arlington public schools in the middle of the last decade move on to middle and high school. Here, new elementary students would utilize existing classroom space, which was created to accommodate students that came before them. It’s a scenario where enrollment stabilizes and doesn’t increase much.

Third, one could picture a scenario where any new home is immediately filled with children. Under this assumption it’s likely that any turnover of single-family homes or suitably-sized condominiums would attract families with children. With 7,998 single-family homes, there is little to prevent another demographic turnover from causing another increase in school enrollment, even if Arlington never adds a single additional home.

In summary, the effects on school enrollment are not easy to predict and several outcomes are possible. Ultimately, this will depend on Arlington’s attractiveness to young families, and our ability to retain these families once their students graduate from school.

Our Proposal to the Arlington Redevelopment Board

We propose that the Zoning Bylaw of the Town of Arlington be amended as

  • By adding the letter “Y” to the “Use Regulations for Residential Districts” table in Section 5.4.3, in the row labeled “Two family dwelling, duplex”, and under the columns labeled “R0” and “R1”;
  • By adding the letters “SP” to the “Use Regulations for Residential Districts” table in Section 5.4.3, in the row labeled “Six or more units in two-family dwellings or duplex dwelling on one or more contiguous lots”, and under the columns labeled “R0” and “R1”,
Class of Use R0 R1 R2
Two-family dwelling Y Y Y
Six or more units in two-family dwellings or duplex dwelling on one or more contiguous lots SP SP SP

and, by making the following changes to the definitions of the R0 and R1 districts in Section 5.4.1(A):

R0: Large Lot Single-FamilyResidential District. The Large Lot Single-FamilyResidential District has the lowest residential density of all districts and is generally served by local streets only. The Town discourages intensive land uses, uses that would detract from the single-family residential character of these neighborhoods, and uses that would otherwise interfere with the intent of this Bylaw.

R1: Single-FamilyR1 Residential District. The predominant uses in R1 are single- and two-family dwellings and public land and buildings. The Town discourages intensive land uses, uses that would detract from the single-family residential character of these neighborhoods, and uses that would otherwise interfere with the intent of this Bylaw.

Related Materials

Arlington 2020: the Cost of Low-Density Housing

This is the second in a series of “Arlington 2020” articles. The first article looked at the number of one-, two-, and three-family homes and condominiums in Arlington, and how that housing stock has changed over time. This article will examine changes in the value of those properties. We’re going to look at “value” through the lens of property assessments, so we should start with an explanation of what property assessments are and how they’re used.

A property assessment is simply the Town Assessor’s best estimate of what a property is worth, based on market values. The assessor’s office inspects properties every ten years; during intervening years, assessments are adjusted based on sale prices of similar homes in a given tax neighborhood. For all practical purposes, assessed values tend to trail market values by two years. In my neighborhood, property assessments are spot on — my house was assessed at $501,000 in 2020; during 2018, sales of similar homes in the neighborhood ranged from $495,000 to $520,000.

Condominiums have a single assessed value, which includes land and buildings. Otherwise, assessed values are broken down into land value, building value, and yard items (e.g., a garage or a shed).

Assessed values are used to determine the tax rate. The assessors page on the town website has calculations in worksheet form, but for all practical purposes, it’s just a division problem. One takes the total tax levy and divides by the sum of all property assessments (in thousands of dollars), and that’s the tax rate. An individual’s taxes are the assessed value of their property (in thousands of dollars) multiplied by the tax rate. If an individual owns (say) 1% of the assessed value in town, that individual will pay 1% of the property tax levy.

The main point is that assessed values are based on market values, but with a two-year lag. Consequently, we can use them as a way to see how home prices have changed over time.

With that background information out of the way, we can look at some numbers. Here’s a graph of the median assessed values for condominiums, one-family, two-family, and three-family homes from 2013 through 2020. (the “median” is a value such that half of the assessments are above, and half are below).

Graph of Median assesed values by year and housing type
yearCondominiumSingle FamilyTwo-familyThree-family

As one would expect, two-family homes are worth more than single-family, and three-family are worth more than two. Condominiums have a lot of variety; they could be half of a duplex, or a single unit in an apartment building. But a general upward trend is clearly evident.

These values are straight out of the assessor’s database, and not adjusted for inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s inflation calculator shows 12% inflation between 2013 and 2020; the %change is pretty considerable, even if one deducts 12% for inflation.

Next, I’d like to dig further into the 1–3 family assessments, by breaking them down into the value of land vs the value of buildings, and showing how that’s changed over time.

Single-family homes:

Graph of Land and building cost for single family homes, by year.
yearLand valueBuilding valueTotal assessed value

Two-family homes:

Median land and building cost for two-family homes, by year
yearLand valueBuilding valueTotal assessed value

Three-family homes:

Median land and building cost for three-family homes, by year
yearLand valueBuilding valueTotal assessed value

There are several things worth pointing out in these breakdowns.

First, note that the land and building values “jump” a bit between 2019–2020. 2020 was one of our full reassessment years, so I’m willing to attribute this to a periodic course correction. The total increase is generally linear, but the land/building composition has changed.

Second, the median land value for single-family homes is higher than the median building value, for all years between 2013–2020.

Third, most of the increases come from changes in land value. I believe this comes down to location, location, and location. Arlington has a well-respected public school system, and it’s close to universities and tech centers is Cambridge and Boston, and office parks in Lexington, Waltham, and Burlington. City amenities are close at hand.

So what does one do about our rising home prices, and in particular, the rising value of land? The first (and perhaps default) answer is to do nothing. Rising property values are a boon to homeowners who purchased a capital asset (i.e., a house) in the past, and have seen its value appreciate over time. The downside of doing nothing is that each year, increasing housing prices create an ever-increasing income threshold for new residents.

An alternative approach would be to allow more (and smaller) units to be built on each lot. This requires reconstruction or redevelopment, but it allows the cost of land to be amortized among several households. More units/lot means more people and more density, but it reduces the income threshold for buying in to Arlington. (Note that the per-unit cost for three-family homes is lower than the per-unit cost for two-family homes. Similarly, the per-unit cost for two-family homes is lower than the cost of a single-family home).

A third article will look at the distribution of housing prices in Arlington, and how the distribution varies by housing type.

Here is a spreadsheet of data shown in this post.

The 1988 Fair Housing Report

I recently came across a report from Arlington’s Department of Planning and Community Development, titled “Overview of Affordable Housing Challenges and Opportunities”. The report begins:

Greater Boston’s revitalization is provoking an unexpectedly severe housing challenge in Arlington. Throughout eastern Massachusetts, growth in regional demand has caused housing prices to soar. Additionally, Arlington’s neighborhood stability and recently improved accessibility makes the town particularly attractive. While this is an initial boon for property owners, it harms others.

The surge in demand and resulting tight housing market have restricted residential choice, currently locking many households into existing living situations, even as they enter new lifestages and their needs change. Although all income levels and types of households are affected, these changes tend to hit tenants harder than homeowners especially the elderly, the poor, young singles, along with growing families, minority groups, and those with special housing needs.

This report was commissioned for Arlington’s Fair Housing Committee, and presented to them in February 1988. Despite being written 32 years ago, it’s quite descriptive of the housing challenges facing Metro-Boston — and Arlington — today. These challenges include rising home prices, conversion of rental properties into condominiums, the phenomenon of being “house rich and cash poor”, pressures of speculation, and insufficient new housing production.

Figure F from the report provides a summary of what was required to purchase a median-value home in Arlington. I’ve reproduced the table here, with a few small adaptations.

1970 1980 1986
median value $30,000 $62,700 $169,000
20% downpayment $6,000 $12,540 $33,800
Mortgage $24,000 $50,160 $135,200
Interest 8.25% 13% 12%
Monthly Principal & Interest $180.29 $559.95 $1391.21
Monthly Real estate taxes $75.00 $110.00 $140.00
Total monthly cost $255.59 $669.95 $1531.21
Annual income required $10,491 $28,780 $65,623

Here’s the same table, where all values are converted to 2020 dollars [1], and where I’ve added a column for 2020 [2].

1970 1980 1986 2020
median value $204,739 $207,902 $397,784 $771,900
20% downpayment $40,948 $41,580 $79,557 $154,380
Mortgage $163,791 $166,322 $318,227 $617,520
Interest 8.25% 13% 12% 3.25%
Monthly Principal & Interest $1,230 $1,857 $3,275 $2,687
Monthly Real estate taxes $511 $365 $330 $711
Total monthly cost $1,741 $2,222 $3,605 $3,398
Annual income required $71,597 $95,429 $154,460 $135,920

This is an interesting comparison. Buying a house in Arlington today is actually less expensive than it was in 1986 (i.e., the annual income requirement is 12% less), but this is predominantly due to today’s lower interest rates. That said, the income threshold is significantly higher than it was in 1980 or 1970. (The report’s introduction refers to 1970’s home prices as belonging to a “bygone era”.)

What solutions were proposed in 1988? The ideas put forward included transfer taxes, accessory apartments (aka accessory dwelling units or ADUs), and encouraging models for cooperative ownership. While I’m unsure of what may have been done to encourage cooperative ownership, I’m pretty certain that the transfer tax and ADU options were never implemented. At the very least, they’re not a part of today’s bylaws.

Between 1975 and 1991, Arlington’s Town Meeting voted in favor of a series of downzonings, and I believe the general sentiment during this period was one of anti-growth/anti-development. Apparently we studied the town’s changing demographics and increasing cost of housing, recognized there was was a problem, but never acted on the recommendations.

Two of the ideas for mitigating housing cost have come back in recent years. Accessory dwelling units were proposed in the 2019 town meeting (Article 15), but defeated by a vote of 137–82 (zoning articles require a 2/3’s supermajority to pass; although the majority voted in favor, that wasn’t enough). The 2020 town meeting may have the opportunity to consider a new ADU article (Article 37), along with the establishment of a real estate transfer fee (Article 20).

Here is a copy of the 1988 report to the Fair Housing Commission.


[1] Inflation adjustments derived from

[2] The 2020 median value is the median value of Arlington single-family homes, based on 2020 property assessments. The 2020 tax rate is $11.06/mil.

Arlington’s Industrial District Survey

During the last few months, Arlington’s Department of Planning and Community Development and Zoning Bylaw Working Group have been conducting a study of the town’s industrial districts. The general idea has been to begin with an assessment of current conditions, and consider whether there are zoning changes that might make these districts more beneficial to the community as a whole.

To date, the major work products of this effort have been:

The survey recently closed. I asked the planning department for a copy of they survey data, which they were generous enough to provide. That data is the subject of this blog post.

The survey generally consisted of pairs of questions: a yes/no or multiple choice, coupled with space for free-form comments. I’ll provide the yes/no and multiple choice questions (and answers!) here. Those interested in free-form commentary can find that in the spreadsheet linked at the bottom of this article.

208 people responded to the survey.

Industrial Zoning questions

(1) Which of the following uses would you support in the Industrial Districts? (check all that apply) (208 respondents)

Breweries, Distilleries, and Wineries86.06%
Mixed Use (Office and Industrial Only)67.31%
Food Production Facilities55.77%
Flexible Office/Industrial Buildings68.27%
Coworking Space68.75%
Maker Space63.46%
Vertical Farming65.38%
Work Only Artist Studio63.94%
Other (please specify)12.02%

(2) Would you support a waiver of the current 39-foot height maximum to allow heights up to 52 feet if the Applicant had to meet other site design, parking, or environmental standards? (207 respondents)


(3) Would you support a small reduction in the amount of required parking by development as an incentive to provide more bike parking given the districts’ proximity to the Minuteman Bikeway? (208 respondents)


(4) Would you support a variable front setback of no less than 6 feet and no more than 10 feet to bring buildings closer to the sidewalk and create a more active pedestrian environment? (207 respondents)


(5) Would you support zoning changes that require new buildings in the district to have more windows and greater building transparency, as well as more pedestrian amenities such as lighting, landscaping, art, or seating? (207 respondents)


Demographic questions

(7) Do you….(check all that apply) (206 respondents)

live in Arlington99.51%
work in Arlington23.79%
own a business in Arlington9.71%
work at a business in one of Arlington’s industrial districts1.46%
own a business in one of Arlington’s industrial districts1.46%
patron of Arlington retail and restaurants76.70%
elected official in Arlington6.80%

(8) What neighborhood do you live in? (207 respondents)

Arlington Heights30.43%
Little Scotland2.42%
Poet’s Corner0.97%
Robbins Farm5.80%
Turkey Hill/ Mount Gilboa11.11%
Arlington Center10.14%
Jason Heights8.21%
East Arlington20.77%
Kelwyn Manor0.00%
Not Applicable0.48%

(9) How long have you lived in Arlington? (207 respondents)

Under 5 years19.32%
5 to 10 years15.46%
10 to 20 years19.81%
Over 20 years45.41%

According to US Census data [1], 72% of Arlington’s residents moved to Arlington since the beginning of the 2000’s (i.e., 20 years ago or less). The largest group responding to this survey has lived here 20+ years, implying that the results may be more reflective of long-term residents opinions.

(10) Please select your age group (199 respondents)

Under 180.00%

(11) What is your annual household income? (188 respondents)

More than $200,00036.70%

Full Survey Results

As noted earlier, the survey provided ample opportunity for free-form comments, which are included in the spreadsheet below. There were a number of really thoughtful ideas, so these are worth a look.

Arlington Industrial District Survey


[1], retrieved August 10th, 2020

Housing Developer Math

Dave Weinstock, an Arlington resident interested in affordable housing wondered about the concept of “developer math”. The math involved in planning an affordable housing projects is a problem that needs to get solved in order to have anything built here in Arlington, or anywhere. This topic comes up frequently in community discussions about the need for more housing.

Questions are raised around:

  • 1- Why build so many units vs. smaller buildings
  • 2- Why parking is costly and inefficient use of land
  • 3- Why can’t more affordable or all affordable units be built?
  • 4- The cost of subsidizing affordable units and how that may translate to higher rental rates/costs, etc.

Dave found a great Architecture and Development firm in Atlanta (Kronberg Urbanists + Architects, based in Atlanta GA) that lays out a nice presentation, includes sample proformas, and real life scenarios that may help us understand this piece of the puzzle better when evaluating any project and how developers may be incented to build certain types of projects or do certain types of work.

Here is a link, reformatted to be within this website, to the presentation, showing the varieties of choices, costs, formulas and outcomes developers consider before deciding if the project can be built:

Much of our hope for more affordable housing depends on the market forces of capitalism and the willingness of developers to build for good, not just for profit. But the developers must be able to cover their costs. Many communities are highly skeptical of developers, assuming the community will get tricked, the developer will get greedy and the promised housing will be a disappointment. Trust is needed. But so is verification. We all need to learn the developer math.

What are the math factors that a developer considers before deciding to build affordable housing?

Here is a link to the original presentation.

The Color of Law on the old Allen Farm

Restrictive covenants are a “list of obligations that purchasers of property must assume … For the first half of the 20th century, one commonplace commitment was a promise never to sell or rent to an African American”. [1] These covenants gained popularity after the Supreme Court’s 1917 decision in Buchanan v. Warley.

Rothstein’s book The Color of Law mentions examples from Brookline, MA; Arlington, MA has examples of it’s own. We’ll look at one from an East Arlington deed dating to 1923. Credit to Christopher Sacca for finding these documents.

First, a land plan to establish content. Below is the subdivision plan for a farm owned by Herbert and Margaret Allen. I count a little over 200 lots in this subdivision. The plan itself states that “no single house shall cost less than $6,000 and no double house shall
cost less than $8,000″. This language also appears in the property deed.

Plan of Allen Park, Arlington Mass.  Dated June 1923.

One of the deeds from these parcels appears in book 4631 page 218 and book 4631 page 219, in the Southern Middlesex registry of deeds.

Here’s page 218; the deed begins at the bottom.

Allen Farm Deed.  Southern Middlsex registry of deeds.  Book 4631, page 218.

Here’s page 219. The racial covenant appears halfway down the page. It reads “No sale or lease of any said lots shall be made to colored people, no any dwelling on any said lots be sold or occupied by colored people”.

Allen farm deed (continued).  Southern middlesex registry of deeds, book 4631, page 219.

The 1920’s were a time of significant residential growth in Arlington, as farmers (called “Market Gardeners” at the time) subdivided and sold off their land. This example shows that Arlington, MA landowners employed some of the same discriminatory tactics for segregation as other communities in the United States. It would take further research to determine how common the use of such covenants was early twentieth-century Arlington.

pdf of the deed.


[1] The Color of Law. Richard Rothstein. pg. 78

Arlington 2020: Low Density Housing

I’ve had an annual ritual for the past several years: obtain a spreadsheet of property assessments from the Town Assessor, load them in to a database, and run a series of R computations against the data. I started doing this for a number of reasons: to understand what was built where (our zoning laws have changed over time, and there are numerous non-conforming uses), the relationship between land and building values, the capital costs of different types of housing, and how these factors have changed over time.

I’d typically compile these analyses into a fact-book of sorts, and email it around to people that I thought might be interested. This year, I’m going to post the analyses here as a series of articles. This first installment contains basic information about Arlington’s low-density housing: single-, two-, and three-family homes, as well as condominiums. Condominiums are something of an oddball in this category — a condominium can be half of a two-family structure, part of a larger residential building, or somewhere in between. There’s a lot of variety.

Here’s a table showing how the number of units has changed over time, since 2013.

land use20132014201520162017201820192020
Single Family79847983799180007994799479987999

Arlington’s predominant form of housing — the single family home — has stayed relatively static; we’ve added 15 over the last seven years. The number of condominiums has increased significantly: +585 over seven years. That, coupled with the reduction of two-family homes (-213) and three-family homes (-25) leads me to believe that a fair number of rental units have been removed from the market.

Next, I’d like to look at how these homes are spread across our various zoning districts. (The “Notes” section at the bottom of the post explains what the zoning district codes mean).


A few points to note:

  • R0 is our newest district, which was established in 1991. It consists only of conforming single-family homes.
  • R1 is Arlington’s original (per 1975 zoning) single-family district. It’s predominantly single-family homes, but there are a fair number of two-family homes, and even a few three-families. The presence of condominiums suggests additional multi-family homes (that consist of two or more condominiums)
  • R2 is predominantly two-, and three-family homes. Although three-family homes are no longer allowed in this district, R2 has the largest number of three-families in town.
  • Residential uses are no longer allowed in the industrial (I) districts, but the I districts contain 34 homes. These buildings pre-date the current zoning laws (aka “pre-existing non-conforming”). A good portion of the Dudley street industrial district is a residential neighborhood.

I’m pointing out these conformities (and non-conformities) for a reason. The zoning map (and use tables) dictate what is allowed today, along with specifying a vision for the future. Our zoning bylaw happens to contain a strong statement to this effect: “It is the purpose of this Bylaw to discourage the perpetuity of nonconforming uses and structures whenever possible” (section 8.1.1(A)). Despite the strong statement of intent, it can take decades (if not generations) for a built environment to catch up with the bylaw’s prescriptions.

I’ll finish this post with a breakdown of how condominiums are distributed across the various zoning districts:


The last column (“delta”) shows the difference between 2013 and 2020. The largest increase occurred in the R2 (two-family) district, followed by R6 (medium-density apartments, where most of the increase took place in 2014) and R1 (single-family).

That it will do it for the first installation. In the next post, we’ll look at how the cost (assessed values, actually) of Arlington’s low density housing has changed over the last seven years.

Here is a spreadsheet, containing the various tables shown in this article.


Arlington’s zoning map divides the town into a set of districts, and each district has regulations about what kinds of buildings and uses are allowed (or not allowed). The districts mentioned in this article are:

  • B1 (Neighborhood Office district)
  • B2 (Neighborhood Business distrct)
  • B2A (Major Business District)
  • B3 (Village Business District)
  • B4 (Vehicular-Oriented Business District)
  • I (Industrial District)
  • R0 (Single-Family, large-lot district)
  • R1 (Single-Family Distict)
  • R2 (Two-Family District)
  • R3 (Three-Family District)
  • R4 (Townhouse District)
  • R5 (Low-Density Apartment District)
  • R6 (Medium-Density Apartment District)
  • R7 (High-Density Apartment District)

Arlington’s Zoning Bylaw describes each district in detail (see sections 5.4.2, 5.5.2, and 5.6.2)

Commercial Taxes and Residential Wealth

Two weeks ago, I helped to organize a precinct meeting for residents and town meeting members. During the meeting, we got into a discussion about public open spaces, how the town funds their upkeep, and whether having more commercial tax revenue might provide additional funding for parks and recreation.

As I discussed in an earlier post, only about 5.6% of Arlington’s is zoned for commercial uses, and that limits the amount of commercial property tax revenue we can generate. Commercial property tax revenue is sometimes referred to as “CIP”, which stands for “Commercial, Industrial, and Personal”. Commercial and Industrial refer to property taxes on land and buildings that are respectively used for commercial and industrial uses. Personal tax is tax on the value of equipment that’s owned and used by a business for the purpose of carrying out whatever their business is. This could include things like desks, display fixtures, cooking equipment, fork lifts, and the like.

In 2020, Arlington’s CIP levy was 5.45%, meaning that 5.45% of our property tax revenue came from Commercial, Industrial, and Property tax revenue. Breaking this down further, 4.2% was commercial ($5,562,528 tax levy), 0.2% was industrial ($278,351 tax levy), and 1.1% was personal ($1,423,117 tax levy). The town’s total 2020 tax levy was $133,350,155. This data comes from MassDOR’s Division of Local Services, and I’ll provide more specific sources in the “References” section of this post.

A CIP levy of 5.45% is low (compared with other communities in the commonwealth), and occassionaly folks like to talk talk about how to raise it. Which is to say, we about how to raise the ratio of commercial to residential taxes. I moved to Arlington in 2007, when our CIP levy was 5.37%. This increased in subsequent years, peaking at 6.26% in 2013, and has been gradually decreasing since. Recall that 2008 was the year the housing market crashed, and the “great recession” began. The value of Arlington’s residential property fell, but the value of business properties was relatively stable in comparison. Thus, our CIP percentage got a boost for a couple of years.

Tax levies (the amount of tax collected) are a direct reflection of the tax basis (the assessed value of property). I’m going to shift from talking about the former to talking about the latter, because that will lead nicely to a discussion about property wealth. Which is to say, the aggregate value of property assessments in town.

Here’s a chart showing Arlington’s net CIP and residential property values, from 1983–2020, adjusted to 2020 dollars. (This is similar to the chart that appears on page 102 of Arlington’s Master plan, but for a longer period of time).

Graph of Arlington Commercial and Residential property taxes over time

Generally speaking, the value of Arlington’s residential property has appreciated considerably, and there’s a widening gap between our residential and CIP assessments (in terms of raw dollars). Because the gap is so large, it’s helpful to see it on a log scale.

Viewed this way, the curvatures are generally similar, but residential property wealth is rising faster than business property wealth.

In summary, there are three reasons why our CIP is as low as it is: (1) a limited amount of land where one can run a business, (2) the value of residential property is appreciating faster than the value of business property, and (3) occasionally business properties are converted to residential (perhaps with the residential property being worth more than the former business property). That’s not to say we can’t improve the commercial tax base. We can, but we will have to think about what and where, and how to compete with a generally competitive residential market.


(Updated 7/2/2020, to add log scale graph and revise conclusion.)

Zoning Maps as Budgets

In 2018, the planning department released a study of Demolitions and replacement homes. Page 4 contains a bar chart showing the relative sizes of Arlington’s zoning districts:

Total Acres of Land By Zone

The folks in Arlington’s Department of Planning and Community Development were kind enough to provide me with a copy of the underlying numeric data. I’ll present that shortly, but for the moment, I’d like to make a proposition about zoning maps: that they are budgets given in acres rather than dollars. A zoning map takes a finite pool of resources (land) and allocates it among specific set of concerns (land uses).

Here’s the size of each district, along with the percentage of land that it accounts for.

ZoneDistrict NameAcres%total
B1Neighborhood Office 25.89 0.79%
B2Neighborhood Business 16.92 0.52%
B2AMajor Business 22.48 0.68%
B3Village Business 28.43 0.87%
B4Vehicular Oriented Business 29.91 0.91%
B5Central Business 10.48 0.32%
IIndustrial 48.96 1.49%
MUMulti-use 18.26 0.56%
OSOpen Space 270.99 8.25%
PUDPlanned Unit Development 16.16 0.49%
R0Large Lot Single-Family 237.85 7.24%
R1Single-family 1,777.64 54.14%
R2Two-family 619.66 18.87%
R3Three-family 8.25 0.25%
R4Townhouse 19.49 0.59%
R5Low-density Apartment 63.76 1.94%
R6Medium-density Apartment 49.10 1.50%
R7High-density apartment 18.65 0.57%
TTransportation 0.76 0.02%

I’m going to roll these up into four categories

  • Residential (the “R” districts)
  • Commercial (the “B” and “I” districts)
  • Open space (the “OS” district)
  • Other (the MU, PUD, and T districts)
UseAcres% total
Open Space270.998.25%

I’d like to point out several things about this summary.

First, 85% of Arlington’s land is residential and 61% is exclusively set aside for single-family homes. When our zoning laws were re-written in the mid-1970’s two substantial goals were (1) limiting the potential for population growth, and (2) making Arlington a “traditional family town” (which I interpret to mean “a place for families with children”). The preference for single-family homes has arguably made those goals easier to achieve; single-family homes mean fewer homes per lot, and they offer enough floor space and bedrooms for families with children. I think we’ve met those objectives. Arlington’s population dropped from 54,000 in 1970 to around 45,000 today, we have well-respected public schools, and our single-family homes have a lot of utility for growing families. We’re a great town for raising kids. Our residential taxes are can be high, but I’d argue this is a design feature rather than a defect.

Second, 8.25% of our land is “Open Space”, aka “parcels under the jurisdiction of the Park and Recreation Commission, Conservation Commission, Arlington Redevelopment Board, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, or Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)”. It’s public land, and it’s a great asset. For better or worse, our Opens Space districts generate no tax revenue.

Third, 5.6% of the town’s land is zoned for commercial use. This is the set of land and buildings that can make up Arlington’s commercial tax base. When I moved to town in 2007, our commercial tax base was 5.4%; that figure increased for a few years (after the 2008 recession), eventually settling back down to 5.4% in 2019. With 5.6% of land zoned commercially, a 5.4% commercial tax base doesn’t strike me as unreasonable. I suspect the goal was to have enough businesses to provide local amenities, but without turning the town into a commercial center.

Finally, the “Other” category can be divided up three ways:

  1. The Multi-Use district is the former site of the Symmes hospital. It used to be known as the Hospital District, and is currently home to Arlington 360, a large apartment complex.
  2. The Planned Unit development district is also know as the Mugar Property. In the early 1980’s, David Mugar tried to develop it as office and retail space. Today, Oaktree Development is petitioning to develop the site as apartments and townhouses.
  3. Finally, the Transportation district is “bus terminals, open space, and the Minuteman Bikeway”; it’s a very small portion of the town’s land.

So that’s our land budget: 85% residential, 8.25% public open space, 5.6% commercial, and 1% other. This is a preference for how the land is used, and a preference for how the local government is funded (Arlington’s main source of income is property taxes).

A common budgeting exercise is to take an existing breakdown and ask “what if we allocated things differently”? For the sake of discussion, let’s say we wanted 50% of the town to be Open Space (i.e., publicly-owned and publicly-accessible green space). This might be driven by a desire for more trees and wooded areas, better stormwater management, climate resilience, heat island reduction, and so on. The conceptual change is easy: take half the town, pick it up, and set it down on the other half. Done [1].

Stacking half the town on top of the other means we’d have enough room to fit all of the homes and businesses that we currently have. The buildings would be taller, there’d likely be far fewer single-family homes, and there’d be a ton of green space. As with any budget, there’s a tradeoff.

Or suppose we wanted to increase the town’s commercial tax base. This topic surfaces from time to time, particularly when the first set of property tax bills goes out during a fiscal year. Commercial property taxes are assessed in much the same way as residential: the assessments are based on the value of land and buildings; dollars and square feet [2]. One can increase dollars (i.e., when a commercial property is sold above its assessed value), one can increase square feet (by allowing larger buildings, or allowing some non-commercial land to take on commercial uses), or one can try to find a way to reduce the total assessed value of residential properties. If none of those choices are appealing, then you probably won’t get a higher commercial tax base. Again, budget tradeoffs.

In conclusion, my goal has been to get people thinking about Zoning Maps as a form of budget. Arlington’s capital and operating budgets have changed over time, as has our zoning map. I’d like us to think of what we might do differently in the future.

[1] In reality, the implementaton details would probably be hideously complex; but the concept is simple.

[2] There’s also a “Personal” component to commercial taxes, which involves equipment and supplies used in conducting a business. This is mere sliver of Arlington’s total tax revnue.

63 Percent in Greater Boston Back Accessory Dwelling Units

from Banker & Tradesman, March 10, 2020: B&T produced a terrific report on the strong interest across the nation in allowing more ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) . This follows after California recently passed strong “YIMBY” legislation encouraging the developement of ADU’s.

“A new, nationwide survey from real estate website Zillow has found that nearly two-thirds of Boston-area residents want the ability to convert their single-family homes into multifamily units.

While the survey conducted across 20 of the nation’s largest metro areas found three in four respondents agree local governments should do more to keep housing affordable, and most agree that allowing more building would help, they remain skeptical of large, multifamily buildings.

The latest Zillow Housing Aspirations Report asked homeowners for their feelings about how best to help quell affordability issues by allowing more homes into their neighborhoods, and comes as in-law suites and backyard cottages gain attention as possible solutions to sharply rising housing costs.

Housing experts say even modest rezoning to allow for more accessory dwelling and small multifamily units could spur the creation of millions of new homes nationwide. Even rezoning limited to areas near MBTA stations would enable the construction of enough units to meet most of the units the state needs to build by 2025 to satisfy demand, according to the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.

Small multifamily buildings – those between two and four units – are increasingly being promoted in some corners as so-called “missing middle” housing that can increase both supply and affordability because the structures often cost less to build than larger multifamily ones.

“In an era of historically low supply and escalating housing prices, the need for more solutions to create housing opportunities is greater than ever. Our latest research shows that homeowners in major markets are generally supportive of providing a range of housing options that allow for not only more housing units, but also a diversity of housing types in existing communities,” Zillow senior economist Cheryl Young said in a statement. “Homeowners may continue to shy away from adding large multifamily buildings nearby, but are open to adding units in their own backyards. This ‘missing middle’ housing, they believe, could help alleviate the housing crunch without sacrificing neighborhood look and feel while improving local amenities and transit. These findings show that broad-based support, especially from homeowners, provides the middle ground necessary to move the needle needed to bring relief to the housing crunch.”

In Greater Boston, 63 percent of survey respondents said homeowners should be able to add additional housing units to their property, compared to 57 percent in Minneapolis, where city officials last year eliminated single-family zoning city-wide in an effort to boost housing production and affordability.

Nationwide, 57 percent of those surveyed backed the ideas of increasing density on single-family lots, and 30 percent said they would be willing to invest money to create housing on their own property if allowed.

The strongest support comes from younger and lower-income homeowners and those in the West, where housing tends to be the most expensive. The highest support was in the San Diego (70 percent), Seattle (67 percent) and San Francisco (64 percent) metros, and the lowest was in the Detroit (47 percent), Phoenix (50 percent) and Dallas (51 percent) areas.

Support also was strongest among homeowners of color – two-thirds (67 percent) of Black homeowners supported this type of density, compared with just over half (54 percent) of white homeowners. Zillow researchers speculated in an announcement that this may be related to persistent homeownership gaps driven in large part by historical discriminatory and exclusionary housing policies.

Advocacy was more muted for larger multifamily buildings. Only 37 percent of homeowners surveyed nationwide said they would support a large apartment building or complex in their neighborhood – and that support was more starkly divided among generations. Nearly 60 percent of homeowners aged 18 to 34 were open to large buildings, compared with only a quarter of those 55 and older.

However new housing construction comes about, more than three-quarters of homeowners surveyed said single-family neighborhoods should remain that way, with more older homeowners (81 percent) agreeing than younger homeowners (69 percent). And a little more than half said adding homes was acceptable if they fit in with the general look and feel of the neighborhood. Homeowners expressed concern about the impact of more homes on traffic and parking, with 76 percent saying that it would have a negative impact. About half said it would have a positive impact on amenities and transit.

Still, about two-thirds of homeowners (64 percent) said that more homes in single-family neighborhoods would have a positive effect on the overall availability of more-affordable housing options. Support for this sentiment was highest in Greater Boston, at 68 percent.”