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.

Footnotes

[1] Inflation adjustments derived from https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm

[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)

Industrial62.02%
Office76.92%
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%
Residential42.79%
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)

Yes74.40%
No22.22%

(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)

Yes68.27%
No30.77%

(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)

Yes66.18%
No28.50%

(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)

Yes81.64%
No13.53%

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%
Morningside4.35%
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%
18-251.01%
26-3513.57%
36-4522.11%
46-5525.13%
56-6520.60%
66-8016.58%
80+1.01%

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

$0-$19,9991.06%
$20,000-$39,9991.60%
$40,000-$59,9995.32%
$60,000-$79,9999.04%
$80,000-$99,9994.79%
$100,000-$149,99923.94%
$150,000-$200,00017.55%
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

Footnotes

[1] https://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US2501640-arlington-ma/, 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: https://equitable-arlington.org/developer-math_kua_071420/

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. https://www.kronbergua.com/post/mr-mu-let-s-talk-about-math

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.

Footnotes

[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
Condominium32423304336734923552366237263827
Two-family23522332230822822263221821832139
Three-family207201196194193190185182

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).

ZoneSingle-FamilyCondoTwo-familyThree-family
B18221311
B2141
B2A118
B3594
B415955
B511
I81871
R0502
R167981682007
R264718161881124
R34391117
R4237923
R5361654
R6268687
R7124321

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:

Zone20132014201520162017201820192020delta
(N/A)1415000000-14
B116161818182222226
B2222244442
B2A1918181818181818-1
B355556159595959594
B4474759595959595912
I18181818181818180
R114014414614815015416216828
R213551406145615181574167017231816461
R3222528313137373917
R4656767797979797914
R56166166166166166166166160
R663063263568368368368668656
R72432432432432432432432430

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.

Notes

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.

References

(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%
TOTAL3283.65100.00%

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
Commercial183.085.58%
Residential2794.4085.10%
Open Space270.998.25%
Other35.181.07%
Total3283.65100.00%

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: https://www.bankerandtradesman.com/63-percent-in-greater-boston-back-adus/ 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.”

Redlining and Urban Heat Islands

In the 1930’s the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation of America (HOLC) created actuarial maps of the United states. These maps were color coded — Green, Blue, Yellow, and Red — to reflect the amount of “risk” associated with home loans in those areas. The colors corresponded to “Best” (green), “Still Desirable” (blue), “Definitely Declining” (yellow), and “Hazardous” (red). Being in a green area made you likely to secure a federally-insured home mortgage, something that was effectively unavailable to red areas. Red areas were often associated with black populations, and these maps are where the term “redlining” comes from.

Here’s an HOLC map of Arlington, courtesy of the University of Richmond’s mapping inequality project.

"Redline" map of Arlington, MA, courtesty of the Home Owner's Loan Corporation
HOLC “redline” map of Arlington, Massachusetts

Note that Arlington does not have any “Hazardous” (red) areas; 68% of the town fell into the top two grades, meaning that we were generally a safe bet as far as federal mortgage insurers were concerned. To the extent that the HOLC preferred white communities, Arlington seems to have fit the bill. According to US census data.

  • 1930: population 36,094. No breakdown by race.
  • 1940: population 40,013. 99.8% white.
  • 1950: population 44,353. No breakdown by race.
  • 1960: population 49,953. 99.7% white.
  • 1970: population 53,524. 99.0% white.
  • 1980: population 48,219. 97.3% white.

Today, Arlington is about 84% white. But during the time that mortgage approvals were based on the HOLC maps — the mid 1930’s through the mid 1960’s — we certainly qualified as an overwhelmingly (> 99%) white community.

Arlington had four yellow-lined (“definitely declining”) areas; about 32% of the town. C1 (on the western edge of town) was noted for an “infiltration of Jews”, a “heavy concentration of relief families”, and hilly terrain which was “not conducive to good development”. But it had good schools and a nice area along Appleton St. C2 (along Mass Ave and Mill Brook) was noted for “obsolescence” with “business and housing mixed together” and “railroad tracks through [the] neighborhood”. There was an infiltration of lower-class people, a moderate number of relief families, and “little possibility of conversion of properties to business use”.

C3 (East Arlington, around the present location Thompson School and Menotomy Manor) was noted for “Obsolescence, poor reputations” and “foreign concentration”. There was an “infiltration of foreign [residents]” and a “heavy concentration of relief families”. On the positive side, there were “a few small farms in this section of high grade development of the ground [which] may be anticipated in the early future with modest houses”.

Finally, C4 (around Spy Pond, and near the Alewife T station) was “obsolescent”, with an infiltration of foreign families, and a moderately heavy concentration of relief families. The HOLC noted that “Houses East of Varnum Street [and] south of Herbert Road are built on low ground and many have damp basements which makes them difficult to keep occupied”.

That’s what the HOLC saw as the declining side of Arlington: Jews, foreigners (mostly Italian), relief families, obsolescence, damp basements, and proximity to the Boston-Maine railroad.

Exercise for the reader. Arlington has five public housing projects: Drake Village, Winslow Towers, Chestnut Manor, Cusack Terrace, and Menotomy Manor. What HOLC colors are associated with our public housing?

Buildings last for decades, and effects of the HOLC’s underwriting policies are still with us today — sometimes in unexpected ways. A 2020 paper called “The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat: A Study of 108 US Urban Areas” examined 108 communities, and tried to determine if there was a relationship between redlined areas and urban heat islands. Nationwide, this is what they found:

Land surface temperature as a function of HOLC risk category
Land Surface Temperature, by HOLC risk rating

LST stands for “land surface temperature” and shows how different HOLC risk categories compare to the overall temperature of a region. Green areas tend to be cooler, with less paved surface, more extensive tree canopies, and buildings with reflective exteriors. Red areas are warmer with more paved surfaces, less tree canopy, and building exteriors that absorb and release heat (e.g., brick and cinderblocks). While the degree varies across different parts of the country, the general trend is the same: as one goes from green to red, the surface temperature goes up. Formerly-redlined areas are far more likely to contain heat islands.

Exercise for the reader. Are there heat islands in Arlington? What (HOLC) color are they?

As the global temperature warms, Arlington (like many other communities) will have to contend with heat islands. The treatment is likely to be area-specific, following patterns laid out in the HOLC’s maps from the early-20th century.

Zoning for Accessory Dwelling Units

by Amy Dain, for Pioneer Institute of Public Policy Research and Smart Growth Alliance, July 2018 (This study updates a 2004-06 study on ADUs by the Pioneer Institute.)

Even in the midst of a housing crisis, zoning laws prohibit most homeowners in cities and towns around Boston from adding accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to their single family houses. An ADU is an apartment within or behind an own- er-occupied single family house that appears from the street to be a single-family as opposed to a two-family house.

Homeowner-voters can be reassured that new rental hous- ing that could be added as ADUs would be highly dispersed and barely visible. The houses are owner-occupied; the land- lord lives next to the ADU renters, so the risk of property-ne- glect or loud parties is minimal. The houses also have to look like single family houses. Since household sizes are shrinking, new residents in ADUs might maintain current neighborhood population densities, but are unlikely to increase them.

Moreover, ADUs are permitted at such low levels now — only 2.5 permits annually per municipality where they are allowed — that permitting levels could increase substantially without being at all noticeable in neighborhoods. If the region were to average five permits per municipality per year across 100 municipalities, over a decade, ADUs could provide 5,000 apartments, dispersed among 538,000 single family houses. Less than one in 100 houses would have an ADU, yet the new rentals would house thousands of people.

Click HERE for the full report.