The citizen participation process including presentations, discussions, public hearings, letters and comments has been long and arduous. The issues are complicated and sometimes feelings run high. In such situations, there can be a feeling that citizens have not been heard. This document, “Guide to Zoning Amendments Related to Multifamily Uses and Mixed-Use“, summarizes many of the issues that have been raised and the changes that have been made in the zoning Articles as a result of the citizen participation in the public review process. Citizens have been heard.
Data in a Mass Housing Partnership report shows how far behind the Boston metropolitan area has fallen in meeting the housing needs of its citizens. There are four primary categories for measuring the inadequacies: 1. Availability, 2. Affordability, 3. L0cation and Mobility and 4. Equitability. See the full report for more data and examples. Two slides are shown below.
(DRAFT – 7/11/2019)
Arlington Planning Department officials report on options for the Town to mitigate the effects of housing demolitions and housing replacements in neighborhoods.
Evidence suggests that lack of appropriate regulatory policies have led to incidences of “mcmansions” and other issues that concern neighborhood residents. This study looks at the data, the policy and regulatory options for Arlington. It also looks at how comparable nearby communities have managed similar circumstances.
This 42 page report covers a great deal of data and analysis of homes by zoning district, gaps in the effectiveness of the current regulatory structure, affects on affordability in Arlington by zoning district, information on housing prices and sales, etc.
“Best practices” include descriptions of demolition delay, expansion of local historic districts, neighborhood conservation districts, design review standards and guidelines and possible revisions to the regulatory framework in Arlington. The report also includes interesting case examples of how comparable communities near Arlington handle these issues.
This report was presented to the Arlington Select Board on July 22.
Read the complete report and see the available data and tables.
Massachusetts’ 2020 Economic Development Bill included a set of housing choice provisions: these require communities served by the MBTA to provide a district of reasonable size where multi-family housing is allowed by right. The law gives us significant flexibility to design a district that best suits our needs, but the district must allow housing suitable for families with children, without age restrictions, and at a rate of at least 15 dwelling units per acre. Arlington is one of 175 MBTA communities in Massachusetts that share in the responsibility for meeting these requirements.
The law requires a “district of reasonable size”, but what does that mean? Throughout much of 2021 the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) worked on a set of supporting regulations that set the district requirements according to the type of transit service a community has, the number of existing homes in the community (as of the 2020 Census), and the amount of developable land near transit stations. The specifics vary by community, but here is what the requirements mean for Arlington:
- Our district needs a capacity of (at least) 2,046 homes. This isn’t a requirement to build 2,046 additional homes; instead, it reflects the total number of homes that district might contain in the future. For example, if a parcel with a two-family home were rezoned to allow a three-family home, that single parcel would have a capacity of three.
- Our district needs to allow multi-family housing by right. “By right” means that the development only requires a building permit, where the Building Inspector determines whether the project complies with zoning and building codes. While Arlington allows multi-family housing (three or more dwellings on a single parcel) in some areas, such projects are not allowed by right.
- Our district needs to allow (at least) 15 dwellings/acre. This is more or less in line with the density of the streetcar suburbs that were built in East Arlington during the 1920s. Although portions of Arlington likely meet the density requirement, none of these areas currently comply, as they don’t allow multi-family housing to be built by right.
- Our district needs to be at least 32 acres, but it could be larger. We have flexibility here, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
- Finally, due to the lack of developable land around the Alewife T station, Arlington is free to locate its multi-family district (or districts) anywhere in town. We’re not tied to any particular geographic location.
The new law’s requirements provide Arlington with a great deal of flexibility. We’re free to place our district (or districts) anywhere in town, and we’ll be able to choose from a variety of options as long as they meet the requirements set forth above. For example, providing the capacity of 2,046 homes in the minimum district size of 32 acres would give us a density of 64 dwellings/acre; roughly the scale of mid-rise apartment buildings. On the other hand, if we went with the minimum density of 15 dwellings/acre, we’d have a 135 acre district that allowed smaller multi-family homes. Our district can be anywhere within this range; we also have the option of having multiple districts, with smaller multi-family buildings in some areas of town and larger multi-family buildings in others.
Arlington has a track record of producing thorough and comprehensive planning documents, such as our Master Plan, Net Zero Action Plan, Sustainable Transportation Plan, and Housing Production Plan. These plans contain plenty of building blocks that could be used to formulate a compliant multi-family district. Viewed in that light, the MBTA community requirements are an opportunity to meet some of the goals we’ve already set for ourselves; we just have to go about it in a way that satisfies the law’s new requirements.
Arlington has one unique consideration, which doesn’t apply to most MBTA communities. In 2020, Arlington’s Town Meeting sent a home rule petition to the state legislature, asking for permission to regulate the use of fossil fuels in new building construction; it’s an important component of our plan to become carbon-neutral by 2050. A number of other communities in the Commonwealth filed similar petitions, and the legislature responded by establishing a pilot program: ten cities and towns will be allowed to enact “fossil fuel bans”, but only if they (a) have 10% subsidized housing, (b) achieve safe harbor via compliances with an approved housing production plan, or (c) establish a multi-family district of reasonable size by February 2024. Arlington doesn’t meet the subsidized housing requirement (only 6.54% of our homes are on the subsidized housing inventory), and we’re unlikely to gain safe harbor status during the next year; our most viable path to participation hinges on meeting the multi-family requirements.
In summary, the multi-family requirement for MBTA communities creates new requirements for Arlington, while also presenting us with new opportunities: the opportunity to meet planning goals, the opportunity to meet sustainability goals (e.g., by regulating fossil fuel use in new construction), and the opportunity to reimagine how we do multi-family housing in Arlington as our town moves forward into the twenty-first century.
Article 1 in a series on the Arlington, MA master planning process. Prepared by Barbara Thornton
Arlington, located about 15 miles north west of Boston, is now developing a master plan that will reflect the visions and expectations of the community and will provide enabling steps for the community to move toward this vision over the next decade or two. Initial studies have been done, public meetings have been held. The Town will begin in January 2015 to pull together the vision for its future as written in a new Master Plan.
In developing a new master plan, the Town of Arlington follows in the footsteps laid down thousands of years ago when Greeks, Romans and other civilizations determined the best layout for a city before they started to build. In more recent times, William Penn laid out his utopian view of Philadelphia with a gridiron street pattern and public squares in 1682. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant developed the hub and spoke street plan for Washington DC in 1798. City planning started with new cities, relatively empty land and a “master builder” typically an architect, engineer or landscape architect commissioned by the land holders to develop a visionary design.
In the 1900’s era of Progressive government in America, citizens sought ways to reach a consensus on how their existing cities should evolve. State and federal laws passed to help guide this process, seeing land use decisions as more than just a private landowner’s right but rather a process that involved improving the health and wellbeing of the entire community. While the focus on master planning was and still is primarily physical, 21st century master planners are typically convened by the local municipality, work with the help of trained planners and architects and rely heavily on the knowledge and participation of their citizenry to reflect a future vision of the health and wellbeing of the community. This vision is crafted into a Master Plan. In Arlington the process is guided by Carol Kowalski, Director of Planning and Community Development, with professional support from RKG Associates, a company of planners and architects and with the vision of the Master Planning advisory committee, co-chaired by Carol Svenson and Charles Kalauskas, Arlington residents, and by the citizens who share their concerns and hopes with the process as it evolves. This happens through public meetings, letters, email, and surveys. The most recent survey asks residents to respond on transportation modes and commuting patterns
We all do planning. Starting a family, a business or a career, we lay out our goals and assume the steps necessary to accomplish these goals and we periodically revise them as necessary. The same thing is true for cities. Based on changes in population, economic development, etc. cities, from time to time, need to revise their plans. In Massachusetts the enabling acts for planning and zoning are here http://www.mass.gov/hed/community/planning/zoning-resources.html. The specific law for Massachusetts is MGL Ch. 41 sect. 81D. This plan, whether called a city plan, master plan, general plan, comprehensive plan or development plan, has some constant characteristics independent of the specific municipality: focus on the built environment, long range view (10-20 years), covers the entire municipality, reflects the municipality’s vision of its future, and how this future is to be achieved. Typically it is broken out into a number of chapters or “elements” reflecting the situation as it is, the data showing the potential opportunities and concerns and recommendations for how to maximize the desired opportunities and minimize the concerns for each element.
Since beginning the master planning process in October, 2012, Arlington has had a number of community meetings (see http://vod.acmi.tv/category/government/arlingtons-master-plan/ ) gathering ideas from citizens, sharing data collected by planners and architects and moving toward a sense of what the future of Arlington should look like. The major elements of Arlington’s plan include these elements:
1. Visions and Goals http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19829
2. Demographic Characteristics http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19838
3. Land Use http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19834
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19825
4. Transportation http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19830
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19822
5. Economic Development http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19837
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19828
6. Housing http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19835
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19826
7. Open Space and Recreation http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19832
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19824
8. Historic and Cultural Resources http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19836
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19827
9. Public Facilities and Services http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19831
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19823
10. Natural Resources
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19824
The upcoming articles in this series will focus on each individual element in the Town of Arlington’s Master Plan.
(This post was originally an email message, discussion open space changes proposed by an Affordable Housing article during the Arlington, MA’s 2019 town meeting. It’s also a decent description of our town’s open space laws.)
Sorry this turned out to be a long post. Our open space laws are kind of complicated.
Arlington regulates open space as a percentage of gross floor area, rather than as a percentage of lot area. Let me give a concrete example: say we have a-one story structure with no basement. It covers a certain percentage of the lot area, and has an open space requirement based on the gross floor area (i.e., the interior square footage of the building).
Now, suppose we want to turn this into a two- or three-story structure. The building footprint does not change, and it covers exactly the same percentage of the lot area. However, the open space requirements double (if you’re doing a two-story building), or triple (if you’re doing a three story building). If that quantity of open space isn’t on the lot, then you can’t add the stories.
For this reason, I’d argue that our open space regulations are primarily oriented to limiting the size of buildings. You really can’t allow more density (or taller buildings) without reducing the open space requirements. Alternatively, if the requirements were based on a percentage of lot area, we probably wouldn’t need a reduction. (Cambridge’s equivalent is “Private Open Space”, and they regulate it as a percentage of lot area.)
The other weird thing about our open space laws is that we define “usable open space” in such a way that it’s possible to have none. (Usable open space must have a minimum horizontal dimension of 25′, a grade of 8% or less, and be free of parking and vehicular traffic). I live on a nonconforming lot that does not meet these requirements, as do the majority of homes in my neighborhood.
Suppose I wanted to build an addition, which would increase the gross floor area. With the non-conformity, I’d have to go in front of the ZBA and show that the current lot has 0% usable open space, and that the house + addition produces a lot with 0% usable open space. Because 0% = 0%, I have not increased the nonconformity, and would be able to build the addition, provided that all of the other dimensional constraints of the bylaw are satisified. Although this isn’t directly related to Article 16, it’s an amusing side effect of how the bylaw is written.
Finally, roofs and balconies. Section 5.3.19 of our current ZBL allows usable open space on balconies at least six feet wide, and on roofs that are no more than 10′ above the lowest occupied floor. We allow 50% of usable open space requirements to be satisfied in this manner.
The relevant section of Article 16 would create a 8.2.4(C)(1) which includes the language
Up to 25% of the landscaped open space may include balconies at least 5 feet by 8 feet in size only accessible through a dwelling unit and developed for the use of the occupant of such dwelling unit.
Article 16’s incentive bonuses strike the usable open space requirement, and double the landscaped open space requirement. With only landscaped open space, 5.3.19 doesn’t apply (it only pertains to usable open space). The language I’ve quoted adds something 5.3.19-like, but for landscaped open space. I say 5.3.19-like because it has a 25% cap rather than a 50% cap, and requires eligible balconies to be at least 5’x8′, rather than 6′ wide.
Here are a few pieces of supporting documentation:
- definitions of landscaped and usable open space from our ZBL
- a diagram to illustrate the difference between landscaped and usable open space.
- The text of section 5.3.19 (which is referenced by the diagram)
- the main motion for Article 16
(Barbara Thornton, Arlington and Roberta Cameron, Medford)
Our communities need more housing that families and individuals can afford. From 2010 to 2017, Greater Boston communities added 245,000 new jobs but only permitted 71,600 new units of housing. Prices are escalating as homebuyers and renters bid up the prices of the limited supply of housing. As a result, one quarter of all renters in Massachusetts now spend more than 50% of their income on housing. (It should be only about 30% of monthly gross income spent on housing costs.) Municipalities have been over-restricting housing development relative to need. The expensive cost of housing not only affects individual households, but also negatively affects neighborhoods and the region as a whole. Lack of affordability limits income diversity in communities. It makes it harder for businesses to recruit employees.
Over the last two years, researcher Amy Dain, commissioned by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, has systematically reviewed the bylaws, ordinances, and plans for the 100 cities and towns around Boston to uncover how local zoning affects multifamily housing and why local communities failing to provide enough additional housing to keep the prices from skyrocketing for renters and those who want to purchase homes.
Interested in housing affordability and why the cost of housing is increasing so dramatically to prevent average income residents from affording homes in the 100 municipalities around Boston? Arlington and Medford residents are pleased to welcome author Amy Dain to present her report, THE STATE OF ZONING FOR MULTIFAMILY HOUSING IN GREATER BOSTON (June 2019). Learn more about the so-called “paper wall” restricting production, common trends in local zoning, and best practices to increase production going forward. Learn about efforts in Medford and Arlington to increase housing production and affordable housing and how you can get involved. Thursday, July 25, 2019, 7:00 PM at the Medford Housing Authority, Saltonstall Building, 121 Riverside Avenue, Medford. (Parking is available.)
To access the full report, go to: https://ma-smartgrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/03/FINAL_Multi-Family_Housing_Report.pdf
The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, which commissioned the study, provides the following summary of the four principal findings and takeaways:
1) Very little land is zoned for multi-family housing.
For the most part, local zoning keeps new multi-family housing out of existing residential neighborhoods, which cover the majority of the region’s land area.
In addition, cities and towns highly restrict the density of land that is zoned for multi-family use via height limitations, setbacks, and dwelling units per acre. Many of the multi-family zones have already been built out to allowable densities, which mean that although multi-family housing is on the books, it does not exist in practice.
At least a third of the municipalities have virtually no multi-family zoning or plan for growth.
Takeaway: We need to allow concentrated density in multi-family zoning districts that are in sensible locations and allow for incremental growth over a larger area.
2) We are moving to a system of project-by-project decision-making.
Unlike much of the rest of the country, Massachusetts does not require communities to update their zoning on a regular basis and make it consistent with local plans. Although state law ostensibly requires municipalities to update their master plans every ten years, the state does not enforce this provision and most communities lack up-to-date plans.
Instead, the research documents a trend away from predictable zoning districts and toward “floating districts,” project-by-project decision-making, and discretionary permits. Dain found that 57% of multi-family units approved in the region from 2015-2017 were approved by special permit, 22% by 40B (including “friendly” 40B projects), 7% by use variance, and only 14% by “as-of-right” zoning.
There also seems to be a trend toward politicizing development decisions by shifting special permit granting authority to City Council and town meeting. The system emphasizes ad hoc negotiation, which in some cases can achieve a more beneficial project. Yet the overall outcome is a slower, more expensive development process that produces fewer units. Approving projects one by one inhibits the critical infrastructure planning and investments needed to support the growth of an entire district.
Takeaway: We would be better served by a system that retains the benefits of flexibility while offering more speed and predictability.
3) The most widespread trend in zoning for multi-family housing has been to adopt mixed-use zoning.
83 of out of 100 municipalities have adopted some form of mixed-use zoning, most in the last two decades. There is a growing understanding that many people, both old and young, prefer to live in vibrant downtowns, town centers and villages, where they can easily walk to some of the amenities that they want. Malls, plazas and retail areas are increasingly incorporating housing and becoming lifestyle centers.
Yet with few exceptions, the approach to allowing housing in these areas has been cautious and incremental. These projects are only meeting a small portion of the region’s need for housing and often take many years of planning to realize. In addition, the challenges facing the retail sector can make a successful mixed-use strategy problematic. Commercial development tends to meet less opposition than residential development, even in mixed-use areas.
Takeaway: We need more multi-family housing in and around mixed-use hubs, but not require every project to be mixed-use itself.
4) Despite their efforts, communities continue to build much more new housing on their outskirts rather than in their town centers and downtowns.
About half of the communities in the study permitted some infill housing units in their historic centers, but her case studies show that these infill projects are modest in scale and can take up to 15 years to plan and permit.
On the other hand, many more units are getting built in less-developed areas with fewer abutters. This includes conversion of former industrial properties, office parks, and other parcels disconnected from the rest of the community by highways, train tracks, waterways or other barriers. This much-needed housing can be isolated even when dense, and still car-dependent because of limited access to public transportation and lack of walkability.
Takeaway: We need to allow more housing in historic centers as well as incremental growth around those centers. Furthermore, we need to plan an integrated approach to growth districts so that they can be better connected to the community and the region.
This is the second in a series of “Arlington 2020” articles. The first article looked at the number of one-, two-, and three-family homes and condominiums in Arlington, and how that housing stock has changed over time. This article will examine changes in the value of those properties. We’re going to look at “value” through the lens of property assessments, so we should start with an explanation of what property assessments are and how they’re used.
A property assessment is simply the Town Assessor’s best estimate of what a property is worth, based on market values. The assessor’s office inspects properties every ten years; during intervening years, assessments are adjusted based on sale prices of similar homes in a given tax neighborhood. For all practical purposes, assessed values tend to trail market values by two years. In my neighborhood, property assessments are spot on — my house was assessed at $501,000 in 2020; during 2018, sales of similar homes in the neighborhood ranged from $495,000 to $520,000.
Condominiums have a single assessed value, which includes land and buildings. Otherwise, assessed values are broken down into land value, building value, and yard items (e.g., a garage or a shed).
Assessed values are used to determine the tax rate. The assessors page on the town website has calculations in worksheet form, but for all practical purposes, it’s just a division problem. One takes the total tax levy and divides by the sum of all property assessments (in thousands of dollars), and that’s the tax rate. An individual’s taxes are the assessed value of their property (in thousands of dollars) multiplied by the tax rate. If an individual owns (say) 1% of the assessed value in town, that individual will pay 1% of the property tax levy.
The main point is that assessed values are based on market values, but with a two-year lag. Consequently, we can use them as a way to see how home prices have changed over time.
With that background information out of the way, we can look at some numbers. Here’s a graph of the median assessed values for condominiums, one-family, two-family, and three-family homes from 2013 through 2020. (the “median” is a value such that half of the assessments are above, and half are below).
As one would expect, two-family homes are worth more than single-family, and three-family are worth more than two. Condominiums have a lot of variety; they could be half of a duplex, or a single unit in an apartment building. But a general upward trend is clearly evident.
These values are straight out of the assessor’s database, and not adjusted for inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s inflation calculator shows 12% inflation between 2013 and 2020; the %change is pretty considerable, even if one deducts 12% for inflation.
Next, I’d like to dig further into the 1–3 family assessments, by breaking them down into the value of land vs the value of buildings, and showing how that’s changed over time.
|year||Land value||Building value||Total assessed value|
|year||Land value||Building value||Total assessed value|
|year||Land value||Building value||Total assessed value|
There are several things worth pointing out in these breakdowns.
First, note that the land and building values “jump” a bit between 2019–2020. 2020 was one of our full reassessment years, so I’m willing to attribute this to a periodic course correction. The total increase is generally linear, but the land/building composition has changed.
Second, the median land value for single-family homes is higher than the median building value, for all years between 2013–2020.
Third, most of the increases come from changes in land value. I believe this comes down to location, location, and location. Arlington has a well-respected public school system, and it’s close to universities and tech centers is Cambridge and Boston, and office parks in Lexington, Waltham, and Burlington. City amenities are close at hand.
So what does one do about our rising home prices, and in particular, the rising value of land? The first (and perhaps default) answer is to do nothing. Rising property values are a boon to homeowners who purchased a capital asset (i.e., a house) in the past, and have seen its value appreciate over time. The downside of doing nothing is that each year, increasing housing prices create an ever-increasing income threshold for new residents.
An alternative approach would be to allow more (and smaller) units to be built on each lot. This requires reconstruction or redevelopment, but it allows the cost of land to be amortized among several households. More units/lot means more people and more density, but it reduces the income threshold for buying in to Arlington. (Note that the per-unit cost for three-family homes is lower than the per-unit cost for two-family homes. Similarly, the per-unit cost for two-family homes is lower than the cost of a single-family home).
A third article will look at the distribution of housing prices in Arlington, and how the distribution varies by housing type.
Here is a spreadsheet of data shown in this post.
This timely report on the question of affordable housing vs. density comes from the California Dept. of Housing & Community Development and mirrors the situation in the region surrounding Arlington MA.
Housing production has not kept up with job and household growth. The location and type of new housing does not meet the needs of many new house- holds. As a result, only one in five households can afford a typical home, overcrowding doubled in the 1990’s, and too many households pay more than they can afford for their housing.
High-density housing is affordable housing; affordable
housing is high-density housing.
Not all high density housing is affordable to low-income families.
High-density and affordable housing will cause too much traffic.
People who live in affordable housing own fewer cars and
High-density development strains public services and
Compact development offers greater efficiency in use of
public services and infrastructure.
People who live in high-density and affordable housing
won’t fit into my neighborhood.
People who need affordable housing already live and work
in your community.
Affordable housing reduces property values.
No study in California has ever shown that affordable
housing developments reduce property values.
Residents of affordable housing move too often to be stable
When rents are guaranteed to remain stable, tenants
move less often.
High-density and affordable housing undermine community
New affordable and high-density housing can always be
designed to fit into existing communities.
High-density and affordable housing increase crime.
The design and use of public spaces has a far more
significant affect on crime than density or income levels.
See an example of a “case study” of two affordable housing developments in Irvine CA, San Marcos at 64 units per acre.
San Paulo at 25 units per acre.
Both are designed to blend with nearby homes.