The discussions on zoning have been confusing because while zoning covers ALL of Arlington’s land and the zoning bylaws for all Arlington’s zones are referenced, the key issues of greatest interest to Town Meeting are the discussions about increasing density. These discussions pertain ONLY to those properties currently zoned as R4-R7 and the B (Business) districts. These density related changes would affect only about 7% of Arlington’s land area. The map shows the specific zones that would potentially be affected. They lay along major transportation corridors.
(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.
In 2015 Town Meeting approved the Master Plan. Following is the Housing chapter of that plan. It contains a great deal of information about details of the housing situation in Arlington, challenges of housing price increases, needs for specialty housing, opportunities for meeting these needs, etc. The authors found that “most cities and towns around Arlington experienced a significant rise in housing values from 2000 to 2010. A 40 percent increase in the median value was fairly common. However, Arlington experienced more dramatic growth in housing values than any community in the immediate area, except Somerville. In fact, Arlington’s home values almost doubled.” This and related data helps explain why the need for affordable housing is now so acute.
(This post originally appeared as a one-page handout, distributed at The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston.)
This chart shows the assessed value of Arlington’s low density housing from 2015–2019 (assessed values generally reflect market values from two years prior). During this time, home values increased between 39% (single-family homes) and 48% (two-family homes). Most of the change comes from the increasing cost of land. As a point of comparison, the US experienced 7.7% inflation during the same period. (1)
Arlington has constructed six apartment buildings in the 44 years since the town’s zoning bylaw was rewritten in 1975; we constructed 75 of them in the preceding 44 years.(2) Like numerous communities in the Metro-Boston area, we’re experiencing a high demand for housing, but our zoning regulations have created a paper wall that prevents more housing — including affordable housing — from being built.
Communities need adequate housing, but they also need housing diversity: different types of housing at different price points. The housing needs of young adults are different than the housing needs of parents with children, which are in turn different than the housing needs of senior citizens. As demographics change, housing needs change too. Keeping people in town means providing them with the opportunity to upsize or downsize when the need arises.
If Arlington’s housing costs had only increased with the rate of inflation, the cost of single family housing would average $581K, over $170K less than today. The median household income in Arlington is about $103K/year.(3) Buying an average single family-home with that income on a typical 30-year mortgage would require approximately 46% of a household’s monthly income.(4)
Either homes in Arlington will only be available to people who have much more substantial incomes than current residents, or the town will find a way to balance the rapidly growing cost of land against the housing needs of its current citizens, those still in school, those preparing to downsize as well as those looking for a bigger space.
In addition, Arlington’s commercial economy will thrive with a greater number of housing units so we can keep the empty nesters, and the new college graduates who have lived in the town for years, as well as welcome new Arlingtonians to support our local businesses, restaurants and other services.
Our Town, like others in the state, is looking for ways to balance the needs of our citizens with the market forces of rising land costs while maintaining a healthy, diverse community.
- The inflation amount comes from Inflation amount from https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl.
- Figures on multi-family unit construction are taken from Arlington Assessor’s data. They reflect multi-family buildings that are still used as rental apartments.
- Income levels come from 2013-2017 ACS 5-year data for Arlington, MA.
- Assuming 10% downpayment, 4% interest, $800/year for insurance, and Arlington’s $11.26 tax rate, the monthly mortgage payment would be nearly $4000/month.
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:
- A study of existing conditions, market analysis, and fiscal impact. Among other things, this slide deck will show you exactly where Arlington’s industrial districts are located.
- A set of test build scenarios.
- An initial set of zoning recommendations. These are high level ideas; they’d need further refinement to fit into the context of our zoning bylaws.
- A survey, to gather public input on several of the high-level recommendations.
The survey recently closed. I asked the planning department for a copy of they survey data, which they were generous enough to provide. That data is the subject of this blog post.
The survey generally consisted of pairs of questions: a yes/no or multiple choice, coupled with space for free-form comments. I’ll provide the yes/no and multiple choice questions (and answers!) here. Those interested in free-form commentary can find that in the spreadsheet linked at the bottom of this article.
208 people responded to the survey.
Industrial Zoning questions
(1) Which of the following uses would you support in the Industrial Districts? (check all that apply) (208 respondents)
|Breweries, Distilleries, and Wineries||86.06%|
|Mixed Use (Office and Industrial Only)||67.31%|
|Food Production Facilities||55.77%|
|Flexible Office/Industrial Buildings||68.27%|
|Work Only Artist Studio||63.94%|
|Other (please specify)||12.02%|
(2) Would you support a waiver of the current 39-foot height maximum to allow heights up to 52 feet if the Applicant had to meet other site design, parking, or environmental standards? (207 respondents)
(3) Would you support a small reduction in the amount of required parking by development as an incentive to provide more bike parking given the districts’ proximity to the Minuteman Bikeway? (208 respondents)
(4) Would you support a variable front setback of no less than 6 feet and no more than 10 feet to bring buildings closer to the sidewalk and create a more active pedestrian environment? (207 respondents)
(5) Would you support zoning changes that require new buildings in the district to have more windows and greater building transparency, as well as more pedestrian amenities such as lighting, landscaping, art, or seating? (207 respondents)
(7) Do you….(check all that apply) (206 respondents)
|live in Arlington||99.51%|
|work in Arlington||23.79%|
|own a business in Arlington||9.71%|
|work at a business in one of Arlington’s industrial districts||1.46%|
|own a business in one of Arlington’s industrial districts||1.46%|
|patron of Arlington retail and restaurants||76.70%|
|elected official in Arlington||6.80%|
(8) What neighborhood do you live in? (207 respondents)
|Turkey Hill/ Mount Gilboa||11.11%|
(9) How long have you lived in Arlington? (207 respondents)
|Under 5 years||19.32%|
|5 to 10 years||15.46%|
|10 to 20 years||19.81%|
|Over 20 years||45.41%|
According to US Census data , 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)
(11) What is your annual household income? (188 respondents)
|More than $200,000||36.70%|
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
 https://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US2501640-arlington-ma/, retrieved August 10th, 2020
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 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.
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.
from Karen Kelleher, Reporter
Interested in new policy developments on housing production in the Greater Boston area? The latest research from Mass Housing Partnership (MHP) is of interest. They just released (Dec. 18, 2019) in interactive map showing relative housing density around every mass transit and commuter rail station in the system, concluding that the region could add 235,000 units if every community allowed density as of right in the area around transit.
CHAPA has legislation pending that would require municipalities served by transit to allow higher density as of right within a certain distance from transit stations. You’ll see that the density around Alewife is not too bad in the context of the entire system.
This is mostly because of very high density in Cambridge near Alewife, but the density of two and three families in East Arlington shows better housing density than the sea of single family zoning around many commuter rail stops.
You can check it out here:https://www.mhp.net/news/2019/todex-research-brief