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 arenot
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.
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).
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.
The material in this post came from my efforts to learn about when Arlington’s housing was built. The data comes from the town’s 2019 property tax assessments, where I took our nineteen-thousand-and-some-odd homes and apartments and broke them down by housing type and decade built. It’s not exactly a history housing of production, though it is a close approximation. In this analysis, a single-family home built in the 1912 and rebuilt as a two-family in 1976 would show up as two units built in the 1970s. Similarly, a three-family home that was built in the 1924 and later converted to condominiums would show up as three condominiums built in the 1920s.
Here’s the visual summary:
And here’s a small spreadsheet with the underlying numbers.
My first surprise was at how much we built in the 1920s: just under five thousand units. This was our biggest decade for housing production, and nearly double our second biggest (the 1950s). Another surprise was the 1990s; 132 of our homes were constructed during that decade, which is the smallest number since the 1870s.
What about homes constructed before 1850? There are only 117 of them, and they’re omitted from the data set. I’ve also omitted residential units in mixed-use buildings, since my copy of the assessors data doesn’t break mixed-use buildings into residential and non-residential units.
Last year, the New York Times published The Climate Impact of Your Neighborhood, Mapped. This interactive feature shows that across the country, carbon emissions per household tend to be lower in relatively dense, walkable, and transit accessible areas. Compared to nearby communities like Winchester, Lexington, and Belmont, the average household in Arlington is responsible for much lower carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) emissions. Allowing more housing along Mass Ave and Broadway, as proposed by the town’s MBTA Communities Working Group, would enable more households to live in these lower-emissions neighborhoods and could be a meaningful step toward reducing driving and Massachusetts’ climate impact.
Zoning Artificially Limits Housing Supply
As noted in the NYT feature above, “For many people today, it is often easier and cheaper to find a home in a high-emissions community than a lower-emissions one… Many cities and local governments often artificially limit the amount of denser or transit-friendly housing available, particularly in wealthier neighborhoods, through zoning that favors single-family homes or requirements around minimum lot sizes and parking spaces.” Zoning restrictions from the 1970s severely constrain housing capacity along the corridors that help reduce climate impacts in Arlington. Those restrictions push families out to places where people drive more to meet their daily needs.
Driving (VMT) is the Largest Source of Massachusetts’ Climate Emissions
Cars are mind-bogglingly detrimental to our climate. According to the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2025 and 2030, “Transportation is the largest source of GHG emissions in the Commonwealth, responsible for 42% of statewide GHG emissions as of 2019… Emissions in the transportation sector have stagnated despite state and federal vehicle emissions standards that have gradually increased the fuel efficiency of vehicles. One major cause of increased emissions is the considerable increase in total statewide vehicle miles travelled (VMT) over the past 30 years.”Even as electric vehicles proliferate, the carbon intensity of our grid means driving will have a substantial climate impact, and reducing VMT must be a primary strategy.
The NYT analysis uses nationally available survey and expenditure data, so income and other effects may confound the estimates of transportation emissions. Massachusetts has a unique dataset that allows measuring driving emissions much more directly – the Massachusetts Vehicle Census (mentioned in the town Working Group report).
For each municipality, dividing the daily mileage driven (of cars registered there) by the population yields vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita, which varies widely in the Boston region. For example:
Cambridge: 8 miles per person per day
Thanks to Arlington’s walkable neighborhoods and transit access, our per capita VMT is lower than many nearby communities, and even on par with the City of Boston!
If Not Arlington, Then Where?
As a thought experiment, consider a climate-conscious family of four who wants to buy a condo in one of the communities above. If they can’t afford Cambridge, Somerville, or Arlington (where 2023 YTD median condo sale prices were $910k, $855k, and $810k respectively), they might consider Waltham or Woburn ($615k and $638k, respectively), or even Winchester or Lexington ($795k and $798k).
Lexington in particular might be appealing, especially as their Town Meeting recently adopted MBTA Communities zoning that allows much more multifamily housing than the minimum required (see the Lexington Cluster Housing Study Group materials in support of meaningful new housing supply). But even with that new capacity, the pace of development will be slow and most of the transportation “bones” of Lexington will be fixed. It is generally less transit accessible than Arlington, and all else equal, the family would likely end up driving more than if they lived in Arlington.
Assuming the average VMT per capita figures above, a family of four would end up driving an additional 2,920 miles per year living in Lexington versus Arlington. Assuming 30 mpg fuel efficiency and 8.9 kg CO2e per gallon of gas, the incremental emissions from this one family would be 865 kg of CO2e, equivalent to the annual carbon sequestered by six half-century-old red oak trees (according to Forest Service data here).
If this family moved to Woburn instead of Arlington, the incremental annual driving would be 14,600 miles. Associated emissions would be over 4.3 metric tons, equivalent to the annual carbon sequestered by 32 of those red oak trees.
Extrapolating These Emissions
How does this example of one family relate to the level of development Arlington might see from MBTA Communities zoning updates? The Working Group’s proposal had a nominal capacity of just over 7,000 housing units in an area that currently has about 2,100. The ARB recommendation to Town Meeting cuts the nominal capacity to around 3,400, for a possible net change of around 1,300 units theoretically allowed. Recent estimates (following the approach here) suggest that this capacity might result in 100 to 300 new housing units built in Arlington by 2033.
If new units enable 250 families like the one above to live in Arlington instead of Woburn, these back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest the avoided annual emissions from VMT reduction would be over 1,000 metric tons CO2e in the year 2033.
Of course these are rough estimates, and the actual climate impact will depend on wider development trends, grid decarbonization, MBTA service, and the details of the zoning that Town Meeting adopts later this month. Low parking requirements (as originally proposed by the Working Group) and robust transportation demand management could help strengthen the climate change mitigation potential of Arlington’s MBTA Communities zoning update. On the other hand, further reductions in Arlington’s multifamily housing capacity would exacerbate emissions. Those concerned about reducing our collective climate impact should take note.
Beginning last July, 2020, the Town of Arlington and community groups in the town are sponsoring a number of webinars and zoom conversations addressing the need for affordable housing programs in Arlington. Several factors contribute to the Arlington housing situation: diversity of housing types, prices, diversity of incomes, availability of housing subsidies, rapid growth in property values that greatly exceed the rate of growth of income.
But racism, both historic and current, continues to stand out as a significant force contributing to the difficult housing situation.
One of the first public discussion in the Town on this subject was organized by Arlington Human Rights Commission (AHRC) on July 8, 2020. View it here:
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).
I recently came across a report from Arlington’s Department of Planning and Community Development, titled “Overview of Affordable Housing Challenges and Opportunities”. The report begins:
Greater Boston’s revitalization is provoking an unexpectedly severe housing challenge in Arlington. Throughout eastern Massachusetts, growth in regional demand has caused housing prices to soar. Additionally, Arlington’s neighborhood stability and recently improved accessibility makes the town particularly attractive. While this is an initial boon for property owners, it harms others.
The surge in demand and resulting tight housing market have restricted residential choice, currently locking many households into existing living situations, even as they enter new lifestages and their needs change. Although all income levels and types of households are affected, these changes tend to hit tenants harder than homeowners especially the elderly, the poor, young singles, along with growing families, minority groups, and those with special housing needs.
This report was commissioned for Arlington’s Fair Housing Committee, and presented to them in February 1988. Despite being written 32 years ago, it’s quite descriptive of the housing challenges facing Metro-Boston — and Arlington — today. These challenges include rising home prices, conversion of rental properties into condominiums, the phenomenon of being “house rich and cash poor”, pressures of speculation, and insufficient new housing production.
Figure F from the report provides a summary of what was required to purchase a median-value home in Arlington. I’ve reproduced the table here, with a few small adaptations.
Monthly Principal & Interest
Monthly Real estate taxes
Total monthly cost
Annual income required
Here’s the same table, where all values are converted to 2020 dollars , and where I’ve added a column for 2020 .
Monthly Principal & Interest
Monthly Real estate taxes
Total monthly cost
Annual income required
This is an interesting comparison. Buying a house in Arlington today is actually less expensive than it was in 1986 (i.e., the annual income requirement is 12% less), but this is predominantly due to today’s lower interest rates. That said, the income threshold is significantly higher than it was in 1980 or 1970. (The report’s introduction refers to 1970’s home prices as belonging to a “bygone era”.)
What solutions were proposed in 1988? The ideas put forward included transfer taxes, accessory apartments (aka accessory dwelling units or ADUs), and encouraging models for cooperative ownership. While I’m unsure of what may have been done to encourage cooperative ownership, I’m pretty certain that the transfer tax and ADU options were never implemented. At the very least, they’re not a part of today’s bylaws.
Between 1975 and 1991, Arlington’s Town Meeting voted in favor of a series of downzonings, and I believe the general sentiment during this period was one of anti-growth/anti-development. Apparently we studied the town’s changing demographics and increasing cost of housing, recognized there was was a problem, but never acted on the recommendations.
Two of the ideas for mitigating housing cost have come back in recent years. Accessory dwelling units were proposed in the 2019 town meeting (Article 15), but defeated by a vote of 137–82 (zoning articles require a 2/3’s supermajority to pass; although the majority voted in favor, that wasn’t enough). The 2020 town meeting may have the opportunity to consider a new ADU article (Article 37), along with the establishment of a real estate transfer fee (Article 20).
(Comments presented to the Arlington Redevelopment Board and Select Board during a public hearing on Jan 13, 2020)
Steve Revilak, 111 Sunnyside Ave. In the interest of disclosure, I live in market rate housing that was built by a developer. Among Arlington residents, I’m not unusual in that regard.
At the end of December, a friend sent me an article that appeared on Redfin’s blog, which ranked the most competitive real estate markets in 2019. Out of 20 listings, three were neighborhoods in Arlington: East Arlington at #3, the Brattle Street Area at #5, and Arlington Center at #12. This is only one data point, but Redfin is a national realtor and works in markets all across the country. Arlington is a desirable place to live.
Housing costs have steadily increased over the last 20 years, modulo a brief reset during the economic recession of 2008. For example, the prior owner of my house purchased it for $151,000 is 1999. I purchased it for $359,000 in 2007 (when it was assessed at $287k). Today, it’s assessed at $501k, which is consistent with similar home sales from 2018.
The net effect: each year a new family moves to town, they have to have a more money (or be willing to spend more on housing) than a family who moved in the year before. With that in mind, I’d like to cite a few figures from the 2019 Town Survey:
Question 37: Indicate the number of years lived in Arlington. 59% of respondents indicated 15 years or less. Nearly 30% indicated five years or less. Despite the prices, people still move here.
Question 40: What was your annual household income in 2018. The most common response was “more than $200,000”, with over 28% answering that way. Nearly 71% of respondents indicated earning $100,000/year or more. Arlington’s median income is likely higher than HUD’s AMI for the Metro Boston area.
Question 41: What is the highest level of educated completed by a member of your household. Over 73% indicated having a masters degree or higher.
I don’t mean to knock people who’ve lived here 15 or fewer years, have advanced degrees, or have household earnings of $200,000 or more per year. I check every single one of those boxes myself. But I do want to point out that we are a highly educated and affluent community. Put another way, we have a population that matches the cost of our housing.
Twenty years of gentrification haven’t killed us: we’ve expanded town staff and services, we’re renovating public buildings, and we’re getting a new high school. Those are all good things, made possible because residents have the money to pay for them, and have been willing to do so.
We can absolutely keep the status quo we’ve had, but I want to recognize that the combination of the housing market and Arlington’s policies have created an economic barrier to living here. I see two issues: one is affordability, and the other is an imbalance between supply and demand.
There are a variety of things we could do, and I think we should consider all of them. I don’t see a viable way to relieve housing pressure that doesn’t involve more housing. And that’s what I hope we can do over the coming years: find ways to build more housing.