Interview with Aaron Clausen, AICP; City of Beverly, Director, Planning and Community Development
Rather than express generalized worry about the “lack of affordable housing”, Peabody, Salem and Beverly have created an intermunicipal Memorandum of Mnderstanding (MOU) to very specifically define and target the problem and the population they want to address.
According to Aaron Clausen, “There is a fair amount of context that goes along with the MOU, but primarily the communities got together as sort of a coalition to survey and understand what was going on relative to homelessness. What came out of that is a recognition that there is not enough affordable housing generally, and particularly transitional housing, or more specifically permanent supportive housing.
“Salem and Beverly both have shelters, however the shelters were basically serving as permanent housing (and running out of space). That won’t help someone into a stable housing situation. Anyway, this was the agreement (attached MOU) and the good news is that it has resulted in affordable housing projects; one is done in Salem for individuals and Beverly has a 75 unit family housing project permitted and seeking funding that has a set aside for families either homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.
“There is also a redevelopment of a YMCA in downtown Beverly that will increase the number of Single Room Occupancy units. I wouldn’t say that the MOU got it done by itself but it helps demonstrate a regional approach. ”
To see the actual Memorandum of Understanding between these three municipalities to address affordable housing, particularly for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, click HERE.
Like numerous metro areas in the United States, Greater Boston has both a shortage of housing and high housing costs. According to a recent presentation by Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine, Boston and the immediate surrounding communities added new 148,000 jobs and 110,000 new residents in the period 2010–2017. But despite the increase in jobs and population, we’ve only permitted 32,500 new homes.
This shortage led the Metro Mayors Coalition — a group of 15 mayors and town managers in the Greater Boston area — to establish a housing task force. The task force set a goal of producing 185,000 new homes during the period 2015–2030. There’s a lot said about that number, and the commitments each community has been willing to make. 185,000 new homes is the big ask, but there’s more to the MMC’s efforts than a simple production goal.
Stakeholder and Municipal Engagement. We must engage in broad, inclusive outreach to municipal officials, residents, and other stakeholders within and beyond the MMC to understand and address regional housing concerns.
Housing Production. We strive to increase the production of housing throughout Metro Boston so that we can provide homes for all types of households and income levels. This should include both rental and homeownership opportunities, consistent with regional need, and designed in ways that respect the neighborhoods in which they are located.
Housing Preservation. We support the preservation of existing affordable housing choices. This includes protecting affordable apartments at risk of expiring subsidies or deed restrictions; preserving “naturally occurring” affordable housing; repairing older homes in need of maintenance and minimizing tear-downs; and preserving smaller homes.
Housing Affordability. We welcome and will invest in the development of housing that is affordable to low-, moderate-, and middle-income households.
Housing Stability. We will work to address extreme cost burdens, minimize the risk of displacement, reduce evictions, eliminate unfair rental practices, create permanent housing for homeless residents, and ensure safe and stable housing throughout Metro Boston.
Fair Housing. We are committed to addressing discrimination against tenants and buyers, and advancing fair and equitable access to housing opportunity for everyone.
Housing Diversity. We promote the development and preservation of diverse types of rental and homeownership housing at a range of scales and a unit mix inclusive of multiple bedrooms.
Housing Design. We support universal design in housing to create accessible and barrier-free homes through the incorporation of features that are commonly available and easily usable by people of virtually all ages and abilities.
Housing Location. We encourage residential and mixed-use development in transit-accessible and/or walkable areas where people can get around locally and make connections throughout the region without relying on private auto. We also support creation of more such neighborhoods through expansion of public transit and retrofits of select former industrial sites.
Complete Neighborhoods. Our commitment to greater housing opportunity is part of a holistic approach to community building that includes a mix of land uses and access to open space. Our residents want to live in areas that offer a range of activity throughout the day and evening.
In addition to the guiding principals, the Task Force’s web site lists dozens of strategies for consideration. Some focus on the three cost drivers of housing production: land, labor, and materials. Others focus on more holistic aspects, like fairness and diversity. The overall list of strategies includes: tenant protections like rent control, requirements for just-cause evictions, and the right of first refusal; community benefit agreements, housing cooperatives, and community land trusts; transfer fees, linkage fees, vacancy taxes, and anti-speculation taxes; use of prefabricated homes and modular construction techniques; and a variety of approaches for community engagement and education.
In summary, the MMC has put a lot of thought into the process — far more than simply coming up with a number.
We should end exclusionary Single Family Zoning in Arlington. This is inspired by Minneapolis which ended Single Family Zoning city-wide last year, as Oregon did. To be clear, we’re not suggesting an end to single family homes, only to exclusionary Single Family Zoning; you can still have a single-family house, but now you’d have the option to build a two-family or duplex instead.
79% of all residential land in Arlington is zoned exclusively for single family homes (in the R0 and R1 districts), meaning the only legal use of that land is for a single home built upon a large lot (source: Arlington GIS via the Department of Planning and Community Development). This is a problem for three key reasons:
Single Family Zoning has a deeply racist past. It came into being after a 1917 Supreme Court ruling made it illegal to have “Whites only” neighborhoods. Instead, towns and cities, as encouraged by the federal government, enacted zoning that used economics instead of explicit racism to segregate neighborhoods. A popular strategy was to require large lots on which only expensive, individual homes could be built. Here’s an excellent short video on the topic: https://www.segregatedbydesign.com/
It’s terrible for the environment. Living in a Single Family Home is akin to driving alone instead of carpooling or taking the bus: it’s the most carbon-intensive way to put a roof over your head. The more people you can house in the same structure, the less energy you spend per person. By spreading people out, we’re increasing the amount we drive and the carbon we emit. And we’re contributing to traffic congestion too.
Arlington is becoming increasingly unaffordable. We have a massive (and growing) housing shortage; combined with continued job growth in the Greater Boston area, housing has gotten dramatically more expensive over the last 20 years. The only way for us to keep rising home prices in check is to significantly increase supply, which will be extremely difficult to do while keeping so much of our land reserved for single family homes.
If you’d like to support us, please share this post and join our Facebook group, Arlington Neighbors for More Neighbors, where we’ll post updates and hearing times for the warrant article we’ve submitted to effect this change.
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.
Issues of supply, affordability, and equity all contribute to an ongoing housing crisis in Massachusetts. Among U.S. metro areas with knowledge-based industries, metro Boston ranks near the bottom in housing production and near the top on development costs. Due to the latter, production of new affordable housing units has scarcely increased over the past decade. And largely decentralized authority over land use regulations, by 351 cities and towns, does little to foster uniform housing equity standards.
Clark Ziegler in MassBENCHMARK Journal vol.21 issue 1
A portion of Envision Arlington’s town day booth was designed to spark a community conversation about housing. Envision set up a display with six poster boards, each representing a housing-related topic. Participants were given three dots and asked to place them on the topics they felt were most important. There were also pens and post-it notes on hand to capture additional comments. This post is a summary of the results. You could think of it as a straw-poll or temperature check on the opinions of town day attendees.
Social Justice Issues
Aiming for a diverse population by income and race; and being vigilant about identifying and neutralizing barriers to this goal.
197 dots, plus a post-it note that reads “Increasing housing while preserving open space” (with three dots).
Providing for different lifestyles: empty nesters, single millenials, young parents, families, walkable neighborhoods.
149 dots and four post-it notes:
No more new 5-story buildings with no setbacks. Ugly. (3 dots)
Why must we maintain our high carbon footprint with single family homes and cars?
I want to live in a wofati (eco building) (Woodland Oehler Freak-Cheap Annualized Thermal Intertia). Not so legal, one day the norm. Thank you Arlington.
Connect to transit. Less single family housing with dedicated parking.
Affordable housing from subsidies, from construction of smaller units, or from building more housing to reduce the bidding price on current Arlington homes.
308 dots, with 10 post-it notes
We don’t need more housing. People need to be able to afford to stay in their homes.
Get Arlington out from the clutches of real estate lobby. (1 dot)
Wrong categories. Includes affordable housing and development which displaces low and moderate income housing
Restrictions on teardowns of small homes
Keep older apartment buildings. They are cheap and affordable.
Rent control and oversight. “I can only afford to stay because I live in a place that is not secure and in disrepair.”
Rent control. Please reinstate so that rent is affordable.
“Affordable” subsidized housing invades your privacy. Every year need all bank stubs, 401(k), like a criminal.
Build more housing. Build more duplexes, triplexes, etc. Upzone neighborhoods. More transit corridors. Renew calls for a red line stop. Build up the downtown to encourage more density and housing in the same buildings as businesses. More housing + transit = a better society.
This was clearly the topic that drew the most response. Arlington housing is expensive.
Maximizing Flexibility of Home Space
Providing for aging parents or childcare providers with a place in your home or getting help paying the mortgage by having a rentable space.
Examining current Arlington Housing Authority, Housing Corporation of Arlington, and aging apartment buildings for addressing new housing needs.
143 dots, and five post-it notes:
Fix transportation infrastructure. Peope can live farther out and still get to work. (4 dots)
Extend red line to Arlington center and heights. (7 dots)
None of the above. Keep taxes low. (1 dot)
Accessible for aging residents. Age in place.
Do something about empty store fronts.
Setting a ten-year goal for new housing
Determining what Arlington’s housing goals should be, and setting about following through on the necessary zoning and incentives to get what we want.
119 dots, and three sticky notes:
Why is America low-density? Why is this country slave to the auto? More housing near transit!
Who is “we”?
There is too much housing density now. Need business area to attract business.
As noted earlier, the cost of housing seemed to be the main issue of concern. This is understandable: housing prices in Arlington (and the region in general) have been on an escalator ride up since about 2000 or so. That’s led to our current high cost of housing, and also to a form of gradual gentrification. When housing is more expensive than it was last year, a new resident in town has to make more money (or be willing to spend more on housing) than last year’s new resident.
I see at least two broad responses to this: one is to keep the status quo, perhaps returning to the inexpensive housing of decades past. The other is for more multi-family housing, and more transit-oriented development. It will be interesting to see how these dynamics play out in the future.
There’s also recognition of the importance of older “naturally affordable” apartment buildings. Arlington was very pro-growth in the 1950s and 1960s; that’s fortunate, because it allowed these apartments to be built in the first place. On the downside, we haven’t done a good job of allowing new construction into the pipeline during recent decades. Buildings depreciate, so a new building is worth more than one that’s ten years old, which is worth more than one that’s twenty years old, and so on. At some point, the old apartments are likely to be refurbished/upgraded, and they’ll become more expensive as a result.
This is only the beginning of the conversation, but at least we’re getting it going.
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:
Prof. Christophe Reinhardt runs the MIT Sustainable Design Lab. On Nov. 25, 2019 he gave a very interesting presentation, including talk and slides, that shows a pathway to make more housing, all kinds of housing, and greater housing density both more palatable in Arlington, and actually desirable. He also stressed the importance of paying attention to housing now in order to meet the climate change challenge. Charts (starting about 10 min in) show how drastically we need to reduce our carbon footprint to reach net zero by 2050. Buildings today account for about 40% of our carbon emissions world wide. What we build today will likely be around through 2050.
Paying attention to housing design is important to create a sustainable environment.