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.

Accessory Dwelling Units: Policies, Attitudes in Boston Region

from Alexandra P. Levering , Thesis, Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University, August 2017

By 2017 65 out of 101 municipalities in the greater Boston (MAPC) region allowed Accessory Dwelling Units by right or by special permit. The average number of ADU’s added per year was about 3. But by 2017, Lexington had 75 ADUs, Newton had 73 and Ipswich had 66. It is a slow process for a variety of reasons, but the number of units grows over time.

AARP recommends ADU’s. The help homeonwers cover rising housing costs by providing income trhough rent. They also create a space for a caretaker or a family member to live close by, as the homeowner ages.

Autism Housing Pathways and Advocates for Autism of MA (AFAM) came together to advocate for an ADU bylaw to benefit parents of adult children with disabilities. For more information see her complete thesis (with a very useful set of tables and bibliography) HERE.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) provide multigenerational housing options for aging parents and for adult children. They help families manage changing lifestyle, fiscal and/or caretaking situations.

This type of housing is seen by many as a clear opportunity to offer more affordable residential opportunities. One reason why they are slow to develop is the cost of renovation and construction for homeowners. Some communities offer low or no interest loans to encourage more ADU development.

The Color of Law on Sunnyside Ave

I live on Sunnyside Avenue in Arlington, Massachusetts. The neighborhood was built as two subdivisions in 1948, with 42 duplexes (84 homes total). These were starter homes with 792 square feet of finished space plus a basement with a garage. I affectionately refer to them as excellent specimens of mid-century slap-up. They were constructed in the mid 20th century, and the builder just kind of slapped them up.

Here’s one of the original newspaper ads for these homes.

Sunnyide - a Community of Duplexes in Arlington! Priced from $8750!

It’s fun to read the ad copy. The homes are “within walking distance of schools, transportation (MTA) and shopping centers” (a selling point that endures to this day); the lots are “large to provide for individual landscaping” (they’re 3,000 square feet give or take, which is unbuildably small by today’s zoning laws); and the homes have “full-sized dining rooms”, “spacious streamlined kitchens”, and “two large sunny bedrooms” (so much largeness for 792 square feet). I guess this was a time when good salesmanship took precedence over truth in advertising. It was a different time.

I have to admit, they were a pretty good deal. $8750 in 1948 is equivalent to around $95,000 in 2020 dollars; these homes, with the original floor plan, currently sell for around half a million dollars.

However, the part of the ad that most caught my attention was “All Mortgages FHA 25 years”. FHA refers to the Federal Housing Administration, who were the primary mortgage underwriters during the middle of the 20th century. They’re also an example of how the United States used housing policy as a tool for segregation; the FHA was in the business of insuring mortgages for white families in white neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston has a short summary of FHA practices. There’s also discussion of the FHA in Segregated by Design.

Which is to say, my nice little neighborhood in East Arlington was likely designed, built, and sold as a segregated development for whites.

Arlington’s biggest period of residential construction was in the 1920’s when we were building an average of 500 homes/year. But there was still a good deal of single- and two-family construction that took place from the 1930’s to the 1960’s — a bit over 5,000 homes. Since the FHA was the primary mortgage underwriter during that period, I think it’s safe to say that my neighborhood was probably not the only for-whites-only neighborhood in town.

I will end with two questions. How do we feel about this bit of history, and what (if anything) should we do about it?