Many issues are under discussion as a result of these proposed zoning Articles. Issues include: housing affordability, the diversity of housing and incomes in Arlington, environmental concerns and sustainability, tax burdens or tax savings potentially resulting from growth, the risk of postponing the decisions, and the image of Arlington as a community that values diversity and equitability. This one page “fact sheet” attempts to address many of these issues and concerns.
A municipality’s master plan is intended to set the vision and start the process of crafting the future of the municipality in regard to several elements, housing, history, culture, open space, transportation, finance, etc. Arlington began a very public discussion about these issues and the development of the Master Plan in 2012. In 2015, after thorough community wide discussion, the Master Plan was adopted by Town Meeting. This year, 2019, the focus is on passing Articles that will amend the current zoning bylaws in order to implement the housing vision that was approved in 2015.
Why Is This Our Issue & What Should We Do About It?
(presented by Adam Chapdelaine, Town Manager, to Select Board on July 22, 2019)
Since 1980 the price of housing in Massachusetts has surged well ahead of other fast growing states including California and New York. While the national “House Price Index” is just below 400, four times what an average house might have cost in 1980, a typical house in Massachusetts is now about 720% what it was in 1980. Median household income in the state has only increased about 15% during the same period. No wonder people in Arlington are feeling the stresses of housing costs if they want to live here and are feeling protective of the equity value time has provided them if they bought years ago.
In response to concerns about zoning, affordable housing and housing density, the Town joined the “Mayors’ (and Managers’) Coalition on Housing” to address these growing pressures. This 12 page slide deck presentation outlines the key data points, the number of low and very low income households in Arlington, the rate of condo conversion that is absorbing rental units, etc.
Solutions are offered including:
• Amendments to Inclusionary Zoning Bylaw
• Housing Creation Along Commercial Corridor – Mixed Use & Zoning Along Corridor
• Accessory Dwelling Units – Potential Age & Family Restrictions
• Other Tools Can Be Considered That Are Outside of Zoning But Have An Impact on Housing
Chapdelaine’s suggested next steps are:
• Continued Public Engagement
• Town Manager & Director of DPCD Meet with ARB
• Select Board & ARB Hold Joint Meeting in Early Fall
• ARB Recommends Strategies to Pursue in Late Fall/Early Winter
The Select Board approved the suggested next steps and a joint ARB/ Select Board meeting should be scheduled in the near future.
Note from Reporter: As a community, Arlington has long prided itself on its economic diversity. With condo conversions, tear downs leading to “McMansions”, higher paid workers arriving in response to new jobs, etc., Arlington is at great risk of losing this diversity that has long enriched the community. Retirees looking to downsize and young people who have grown up in Arlington looking for their first apartment are finding it impossible to stay in town. Shop keepers and town employees are challenged to afford the rising housing costs. With a reconsideration of zoning along Arlington’s transit corridors, Arlington NOW has an opportunity to create new village centers, like those recommended in the recent STATE OF HOUSING report. These village centers along our transit corridors could be higher, denser but also offer the compelling visual design and amenities desired by people who want to walk to cafes, shops and public transit.
The calculation for what is permanently affordable housing is complicated. Arlington’s affordable rate is based on a region that includes the Area Median Income (AMI) of the Cambridge-Boston-Quincy region. The rate is adjusted and reset periodically according to federal HUD guidelines. The rate is applied based on family size and on the Town’s definition of what income level is eligible for Inclusionary Housing opportunities in Arlington. In Arlington a 3 person family would qualify if their income was under 60% of AMI. At this time, that is approximately $58,000 for a family of three.
For more information, see this table of income limits from Cambridge’s Community Development Department, and this short paper on affordable housing from the City of Boston.
Article 16 is a proposal to encourage the production of affordable housing in the town of Arlington. I brought this article to town meeting for several reasons, namely, our increasing cost of housing and our increasing cost of land. Arlington is part of the Metropolitan Boston area; we share borders with Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford, and are a mere 5.5 miles from Boston itself. Years ago, people moved out of cities and into the suburbs. That trend has reversed during the last decade, and people are moving back to urban areas, including Metro-Boston. Metro-Boston is a good source of jobs; people come here to work and want to live nearby. That obviously puts pressure on housing prices, and Arlington is not immune from that pressure.
Another reason for proposing Article 16 was my desire to start a conversation about the role our zoning laws play in the cost of housing, and how they might be used to relieve some of that burden. During the 20th century people discovered that one cannot draw a line on a map and say “upper-class households on this side, lower-class households on that side”, but one can draw a line on a map and say “single-family homes on this side, and apartments on that side”. For all practical purposes, the latter achieves the same result as the former. When zoning places a threshold on the cost of housing, it determines who can and cannot afford to live in a given area.
Today 70% of Arlington’s land is exclusively zoned for single family homes, the predominant form of housing in town. In 2013, the median cost of a single-family home was $472,850; this rose to $618,800 in 2018 — an increase of 31%. We can break this down further. The median building cost for a single-family building rose from $226,300 in 2013 to $248,100 in 2018 (an increase of 9.6%), and the median cost for a single-family lot rose from $243,700 to $360,900 (an increase of 48%). Land is a large component of our housing costs, and it continues to rise. Certain neighborhoods (e.g., Kelwyn Manor) saw substantial increases in land assessments in 2019, enough that the Assessor’s office issued a statement to explain the property tax increases. To that end, multifamily housing is a straightforward way to reduce the land costs associated with housing. Putting two units on a lot instead of one decreases the land cost by 50% for each unit.
Article 16 tries to encourage the production of affordable housing (restricted to 60% of the area median income for rentable units and 70% for owner-occupied units). It works as follows:
- Projects of six or more units must make 15% of those units affordable. This is part of our existing bylaws.
- Projects of twenty or more units must make 20% of those units affordable. This is a new provision in Article 16.
- Projects of six or more units that produce more than the required number of affordable units will be eligible for density bonuses, according to the proposed section 8.2.4(C). Essentially, this allows a developer to build a larger building, in exchange for creating more affordable housing.
- Projects of six or more units that produce only the required number of affordable units are not eligible for the density bonuses contained in 8.2.4(C).
- Projects of 4-5 units will be eligible for the density bonuses in section 8.2.4(C), as long as they are of a use, and in a zone contained in those tables. This provision is intended to permit smaller apartments and townhouses, filling a need for residents who don’t necessarily want (or may not be able to afford) a single-family home. This provision can help reduce land costs by allowing a four-unit townhouse in place of a duplex, for example.
Historically, Arlington has had mixed results with affordable housing production, mainly due to the limited opportunity to build projects of six units or more. It is my hope that the density bonuses allow more of these projects to be built.
In conclusion, the problem of housing affordability in Arlington comes from a variety of pressures, is several years in the making, and will likely take years to address. I see Article 16 as the first step down a long road, and I ask for your support during the 2019 Town Meeting. I’d also ask for your support on articles 6, 7, and 8 which contain minor changes to make Article 16 work properly.
In a 2019 study, MAPC found that:
- Three out of ten spaces sit empty during peak demand
- The key factors that drive parking demand are parking supply, transit accessibility and the percentage of deed-restricted units
This study raises important questions about the wisdom of continuing to commit large sections of the land area of our municipalities to be on reserve for parking cars. Such extra space could be used to benefit the open space, environmental sustainability and the need for more housing.
This letter appeared in the Boston Globe on Dec. 19th. It’s reprinted
here with permission from the author, Eugene Benson.
The Dec. 12 letter from Jo Anne Preston unfortunately repeats misinformation making the rounds in Arlington (“Arlington is a case study in grappling with rezoning“).
At April Town Meeting, the Arlington Redevelopment Board recommended a vote of no action on its warrant article that would have allowed increased density along the town’s commercial corridors in exchange for building more affordable housing (known as “incentive zoning”), when it became obvious that the article would be unlikely to gain a two-thirds vote for passage, in part because of the complexity of what was proposed.
A warrant article to allow accessory dwelling units in existing housing (“in-law apartments”) gained more than 60 percent of the vote at Town Meeting but not the two-thirds vote necessary to change zoning.
The letter writer mentioned “naturally occurring affordable apartment buildings.” The typical monthly rent for an apartment in those older buildings ranges from about $1,700 for a one-bedroom to about $2,300 for a two-bedroom, according to real estate data from CoStar. Those are not affordable rents for lower-income people. For example, a senior couple with the national average Social Security income of about $2,500 per month would spend most of their income just to pay the rent.
We need to protect the ability of people with lower incomes to withstand rent increases and gentrification. That, however, requires a different approach than hoping for naturally occurring affordable housing to be there even five years from now.
Eugene B. Benson
The writer’s views expressed here are his own, and are not offered on behalf of the Arlington Redevelopment Board, of which he is a member.
A few days ago, the Boston Globe ran an article titled “2021 set records in Boston Housing Market. What now?“. It’s not unusual to see stories about housing in the news — the market is highly competitive and the sale prices can be jaw dropping. Jaw dropping can take several forms: from the new (and used) homes that sell for over two million dollars, to the amount of money that someone will pay to purchase a small post-war cape (around $900,000, give or take).
According to the globe article, the Greater Boston Association of Realtors estimates that the median price of a single family homes in the Boston area rose 10.5% in 2021, to $750,000. Arlington is comfortably in the upper half of this median: according to our draft housing production plan the median sale price of our single family homes was $862,500 in 2020, and rose to $960,000 in the first half of 2021 (see page 39).
In June 2021, I got myself into a habit of sampling real estate sales listed in the Arlington Advocate, and compiling them into a spreadsheet. My observations are generally consistent with the sources cited above; Arlington’s housing is expensive and it’s appreciated rapidly, particularly in the last 6–10 years. It’s a great time for existing owners, but less so if you’re in the market for your first home.
We’re actually facing two problems, which are related but not identical. The first is high cost, which creates financial stress and a barrier to entry (though it is a boon for those who sell). The second problem is quantity; there are regional and national housing shortages, and that contributes to high prices and bidding wars.
Addressing these challenges will require collective effort on behalf of all communities in the metro area; this is a regional problem and we’ll all have to pitch in. There isn’t a single recipe for what “pitching in” means, but here are some for what communities can do.
First, produce more affordable housing. Affordable housing is a complex regulatory subject, but it basically boils down to two things: (1) the housing is reserved for households with lower incomes than the area as a whole, and (2) there’s a deed restriction (or similar) that prevents it from being sold or rented at market rates. Affordable housing usually costs more to produce than it generates in income, and the difference has to be made up with subsidies. It takes money.
Second, simply produce more housing. This is the obvious way to address an absolute shortage in the number of dwellings available. Some communities have set goals for housing production. Under the Walsh administration, Boston set a goal of producing 69,000 new housing units by 2030. Somerville’s goal is 6000 new housing units, and Cambridge’s is 12,500 (page 152 of pdf). To the best of my knowledge, Arlington has not set a numeric housing production goal, but it’s something I’d like to see us do.
Finally, communities could be more flexible with the types of housing they allow. Arlington is predominantly zoned for single- and two-family homes. The median sale price of our single family homes was $960,000 during the first half of 2021, and a large portion of that comes from the cost of land. That’s the reality we have, and the existing housing costs what it costs. So, we might consider allowing more types of “missing middle” housing, where the per dwelling costs tend to be lower: apartments, town houses, triple-deckers, and the like.
Of course, this assumes that our high cost of housing is a problem that needs to be solved; we could always decide that it isn’t. In the United States, home ownership is seen as a way to build equity and wealth. It’s certainly been fulfilling that objective, especially in recent years.
A report by Mass Housing Partnership’s Shelly Goehring looks at Arlington’s housing development history and policies to understand how municipal action and inaction can contribute to housing inaffordability and can limit the population diversity within a community. The report implies that it has been difficult historically for reputable housing developers to work with the regulatory structure within Arlington to get housing built.
Massachusetts has the nation’s 2nd largest gap in homeownership between households of color (31% own homes) and white households (69% own homes).
See the complete report for more information.