Arlington 2020: Low Density Housing

I’ve had an annual ritual for the past several years: obtain a spreadsheet of property assessments from the Town Assessor, load them in to a database, and run a series of R computations against the data. I started doing this for a number of reasons: to understand what was built where (our zoning laws have changed over time, and there are numerous non-conforming uses), the relationship between land and building values, the capital costs of different types of housing, and how these factors have changed over time.

I’d typically compile these analyses into a fact-book of sorts, and email it around to people that I thought might be interested. This year, I’m going to post the analyses here as a series of articles. This first installment contains basic information about Arlington’s low-density housing: single-, two-, and three-family homes, as well as condominiums. Condominiums are something of an oddball in this category — a condominium can be half of a two-family structure, part of a larger residential building, or somewhere in between. There’s a lot of variety.

Here’s a table showing how the number of units has changed over time, since 2013.

land use20132014201520162017201820192020
Single Family79847983799180007994799479987999
Condominium32423304336734923552366237263827
Two-family23522332230822822263221821832139
Three-family207201196194193190185182

Arlington’s predominant form of housing — the single family home — has stayed relatively static; we’ve added 15 over the last seven years. The number of condominiums has increased significantly: +585 over seven years. That, coupled with the reduction of two-family homes (-213) and three-family homes (-25) leads me to believe that a fair number of rental units have been removed from the market.

Next, I’d like to look at how these homes are spread across our various zoning districts. (The “Notes” section at the bottom of the post explains what the zoning district codes mean).

ZoneSingle-FamilyCondoTwo-familyThree-family
B18221311
B2141
B2A118
B3594
B415955
B511
I81871
R0502
R167981682007
R264718161881124
R34391117
R4237923
R5361654
R6268687
R7124321

A few points to note:

  • R0 is our newest district, which was established in 1991. It consists only of conforming single-family homes.
  • R1 is Arlington’s original (per 1975 zoning) single-family district. It’s predominantly single-family homes, but there are a fair number of two-family homes, and even a few three-families. The presence of condominiums suggests additional multi-family homes (that consist of two or more condominiums)
  • R2 is predominantly two-, and three-family homes. Although three-family homes are no longer allowed in this district, R2 has the largest number of three-families in town.
  • Residential uses are no longer allowed in the industrial (I) districts, but the I districts contain 34 homes. These buildings pre-date the current zoning laws (aka “pre-existing non-conforming”). A good portion of the Dudley street industrial district is a residential neighborhood.

I’m pointing out these conformities (and non-conformities) for a reason. The zoning map (and use tables) dictate what is allowed today, along with specifying a vision for the future. Our zoning bylaw happens to contain a strong statement to this effect: “It is the purpose of this Bylaw to discourage the perpetuity of nonconforming uses and structures whenever possible” (section 8.1.1(A)). Despite the strong statement of intent, it can take decades (if not generations) for a built environment to catch up with the bylaw’s prescriptions.

I’ll finish this post with a breakdown of how condominiums are distributed across the various zoning districts:

Zone20132014201520162017201820192020delta
(N/A)1415000000-14
B116161818182222226
B2222244442
B2A1918181818181818-1
B355556159595959594
B4474759595959595912
I18181818181818180
R114014414614815015416216828
R213551406145615181574167017231816461
R3222528313137373917
R4656767797979797914
R56166166166166166166166160
R663063263568368368368668656
R72432432432432432432432430

The last column (“delta”) shows the difference between 2013 and 2020. The largest increase occurred in the R2 (two-family) district, followed by R6 (medium-density apartments, where most of the increase took place in 2014) and R1 (single-family).

That it will do it for the first installation. In the next post, we’ll look at how the cost (assessed values, actually) of Arlington’s low density housing has changed over the last seven years.

Here is a spreadsheet, containing the various tables shown in this article.

Notes

Arlington’s zoning map divides the town into a set of districts, and each district has regulations about what kinds of buildings and uses are allowed (or not allowed). The districts mentioned in this article are:

  • B1 (Neighborhood Office district)
  • B2 (Neighborhood Business distrct)
  • B2A (Major Business District)
  • B3 (Village Business District)
  • B4 (Vehicular-Oriented Business District)
  • I (Industrial District)
  • R0 (Single-Family, large-lot district)
  • R1 (Single-Family Distict)
  • R2 (Two-Family District)
  • R3 (Three-Family District)
  • R4 (Townhouse District)
  • R5 (Low-Density Apartment District)
  • R6 (Medium-Density Apartment District)
  • R7 (High-Density Apartment District)

Arlington’s Zoning Bylaw describes each district in detail (see sections 5.4.2, 5.5.2, and 5.6.2)

Commercial Taxes and Residential Wealth

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).

Graph of Arlington Commercial and Residential property taxes over 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.

References

(Updated 7/2/2020, to add log scale graph and revise conclusion.)

Zoning Maps as Budgets

In 2018, the planning department released a study of Demolitions and replacement homes. Page 4 contains a bar chart showing the relative sizes of Arlington’s zoning districts:

Total Acres of Land By Zone

The folks in Arlington’s Department of Planning and Community Development were kind enough to provide me with a copy of the underlying numeric data. I’ll present that shortly, but for the moment, I’d like to make a proposition about zoning maps: that they are budgets given in acres rather than dollars. A zoning map takes a finite pool of resources (land) and allocates it among specific set of concerns (land uses).

Here’s the size of each district, along with the percentage of land that it accounts for.

ZoneDistrict NameAcres%total
B1Neighborhood Office 25.89 0.79%
B2Neighborhood Business 16.92 0.52%
B2AMajor Business 22.48 0.68%
B3Village Business 28.43 0.87%
B4Vehicular Oriented Business 29.91 0.91%
B5Central Business 10.48 0.32%
IIndustrial 48.96 1.49%
MUMulti-use 18.26 0.56%
OSOpen Space 270.99 8.25%
PUDPlanned Unit Development 16.16 0.49%
R0Large Lot Single-Family 237.85 7.24%
R1Single-family 1,777.64 54.14%
R2Two-family 619.66 18.87%
R3Three-family 8.25 0.25%
R4Townhouse 19.49 0.59%
R5Low-density Apartment 63.76 1.94%
R6Medium-density Apartment 49.10 1.50%
R7High-density apartment 18.65 0.57%
TTransportation 0.76 0.02%
TOTAL3283.65100.00%

I’m going to roll these up into four categories

  • Residential (the “R” districts)
  • Commercial (the “B” and “I” districts)
  • Open space (the “OS” district)
  • Other (the MU, PUD, and T districts)
UseAcres% total
Commercial183.085.58%
Residential2794.4085.10%
Open Space270.998.25%
Other35.181.07%
Total3283.65100.00%

I’d like to point out several things about this summary.

First, 85% of Arlington’s land is residential and 61% is exclusively set aside for single-family homes. When our zoning laws were re-written in the mid-1970’s two substantial goals were (1) limiting the potential for population growth, and (2) making Arlington a “traditional family town” (which I interpret to mean “a place for families with children”). The preference for single-family homes has arguably made those goals easier to achieve; single-family homes mean fewer homes per lot, and they offer enough floor space and bedrooms for families with children. I think we’ve met those objectives. Arlington’s population dropped from 54,000 in 1970 to around 45,000 today, we have well-respected public schools, and our single-family homes have a lot of utility for growing families. We’re a great town for raising kids. Our residential taxes are can be high, but I’d argue this is a design feature rather than a defect.

Second, 8.25% of our land is “Open Space”, aka “parcels under the jurisdiction of the Park and Recreation Commission, Conservation Commission, Arlington Redevelopment Board, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, or Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)”. It’s public land, and it’s a great asset. For better or worse, our Opens Space districts generate no tax revenue.

Third, 5.6% of the town’s land is zoned for commercial use. This is the set of land and buildings that can make up Arlington’s commercial tax base. When I moved to town in 2007, our commercial tax base was 5.4%; that figure increased for a few years (after the 2008 recession), eventually settling back down to 5.4% in 2019. With 5.6% of land zoned commercially, a 5.4% commercial tax base doesn’t strike me as unreasonable. I suspect the goal was to have enough businesses to provide local amenities, but without turning the town into a commercial center.

Finally, the “Other” category can be divided up three ways:

  1. The Multi-Use district is the former site of the Symmes hospital. It used to be known as the Hospital District, and is currently home to Arlington 360, a large apartment complex.
  2. The Planned Unit development district is also know as the Mugar Property. In the early 1980’s, David Mugar tried to develop it as office and retail space. Today, Oaktree Development is petitioning to develop the site as apartments and townhouses.
  3. Finally, the Transportation district is “bus terminals, open space, and the Minuteman Bikeway”; it’s a very small portion of the town’s land.

So that’s our land budget: 85% residential, 8.25% public open space, 5.6% commercial, and 1% other. This is a preference for how the land is used, and a preference for how the local government is funded (Arlington’s main source of income is property taxes).

A common budgeting exercise is to take an existing breakdown and ask “what if we allocated things differently”? For the sake of discussion, let’s say we wanted 50% of the town to be Open Space (i.e., publicly-owned and publicly-accessible green space). This might be driven by a desire for more trees and wooded areas, better stormwater management, climate resilience, heat island reduction, and so on. The conceptual change is easy: take half the town, pick it up, and set it down on the other half. Done [1].

Stacking half the town on top of the other means we’d have enough room to fit all of the homes and businesses that we currently have. The buildings would be taller, there’d likely be far fewer single-family homes, and there’d be a ton of green space. As with any budget, there’s a tradeoff.

Or suppose we wanted to increase the town’s commercial tax base. This topic surfaces from time to time, particularly when the first set of property tax bills goes out during a fiscal year. Commercial property taxes are assessed in much the same way as residential: the assessments are based on the value of land and buildings; dollars and square feet [2]. One can increase dollars (i.e., when a commercial property is sold above its assessed value), one can increase square feet (by allowing larger buildings, or allowing some non-commercial land to take on commercial uses), or one can try to find a way to reduce the total assessed value of residential properties. If none of those choices are appealing, then you probably won’t get a higher commercial tax base. Again, budget tradeoffs.

In conclusion, my goal has been to get people thinking about Zoning Maps as a form of budget. Arlington’s capital and operating budgets have changed over time, as has our zoning map. I’d like us to think of what we might do differently in the future.

[1] In reality, the implementaton details would probably be hideously complex; but the concept is simple.

[2] There’s also a “Personal” component to commercial taxes, which involves equipment and supplies used in conducting a business. This is mere sliver of Arlington’s total tax revnue.

Redlining and Urban Heat Islands

In the 1930’s the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation of America (HOLC) created actuarial maps of the United states. These maps were color coded — Green, Blue, Yellow, and Red — to reflect the amount of “risk” associated with home loans in those areas. The colors corresponded to “Best” (green), “Still Desirable” (blue), “Definitely Declining” (yellow), and “Hazardous” (red). Being in a green area made you likely to secure a federally-insured home mortgage, something that was effectively unavailable to red areas. Red areas were often associated with black populations, and these maps are where the term “redlining” comes from.

Here’s an HOLC map of Arlington, courtesy of the University of Richmond’s mapping inequality project.

"Redline" map of Arlington, MA, courtesty of the Home Owner's Loan Corporation
HOLC “redline” map of Arlington, Massachusetts

Note that Arlington does not have any “Hazardous” (red) areas; 68% of the town fell into the top two grades, meaning that we were generally a safe bet as far as federal mortgage insurers were concerned. To the extent that the HOLC preferred white communities, Arlington seems to have fit the bill. According to US census data.

  • 1930: population 36,094. No breakdown by race.
  • 1940: population 40,013. 99.8% white.
  • 1950: population 44,353. No breakdown by race.
  • 1960: population 49,953. 99.7% white.
  • 1970: population 53,524. 99.0% white.
  • 1980: population 48,219. 97.3% white.

Today, Arlington is about 84% white. But during the time that mortgage approvals were based on the HOLC maps — the mid 1930’s through the mid 1960’s — we certainly qualified as an overwhelmingly (> 99%) white community.

Arlington had four yellow-lined (“definitely declining”) areas; about 32% of the town. C1 (on the western edge of town) was noted for an “infiltration of Jews”, a “heavy concentration of relief families”, and hilly terrain which was “not conducive to good development”. But it had good schools and a nice area along Appleton St. C2 (along Mass Ave and Mill Brook) was noted for “obsolescence” with “business and housing mixed together” and “railroad tracks through [the] neighborhood”. There was an infiltration of lower-class people, a moderate number of relief families, and “little possibility of conversion of properties to business use”.

C3 (East Arlington, around the present location Thompson School and Menotomy Manor) was noted for “Obsolescence, poor reputations” and “foreign concentration”. There was an “infiltration of foreign [residents]” and a “heavy concentration of relief families”. On the positive side, there were “a few small farms in this section of high grade development of the ground [which] may be anticipated in the early future with modest houses”.

Finally, C4 (around Spy Pond, and near the Alewife T station) was “obsolescent”, with an infiltration of foreign families, and a moderately heavy concentration of relief families. The HOLC noted that “Houses East of Varnum Street [and] south of Herbert Road are built on low ground and many have damp basements which makes them difficult to keep occupied”.

That’s what the HOLC saw as the declining side of Arlington: Jews, foreigners (mostly Italian), relief families, obsolescence, damp basements, and proximity to the Boston-Maine railroad.

Exercise for the reader. Arlington has five public housing projects: Drake Village, Winslow Towers, Chestnut Manor, Cusack Terrace, and Menotomy Manor. What HOLC colors are associated with our public housing?

Buildings last for decades, and effects of the HOLC’s underwriting policies are still with us today — sometimes in unexpected ways. A 2020 paper called “The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat: A Study of 108 US Urban Areas” examined 108 communities, and tried to determine if there was a relationship between redlined areas and urban heat islands. Nationwide, this is what they found:

Land surface temperature as a function of HOLC risk category
Land Surface Temperature, by HOLC risk rating

LST stands for “land surface temperature” and shows how different HOLC risk categories compare to the overall temperature of a region. Green areas tend to be cooler, with less paved surface, more extensive tree canopies, and buildings with reflective exteriors. Red areas are warmer with more paved surfaces, less tree canopy, and building exteriors that absorb and release heat (e.g., brick and cinderblocks). While the degree varies across different parts of the country, the general trend is the same: as one goes from green to red, the surface temperature goes up. Formerly-redlined areas are far more likely to contain heat islands.

Exercise for the reader. Are there heat islands in Arlington? What (HOLC) color are they?

As the global temperature warms, Arlington (like many other communities) will have to contend with heat islands. The treatment is likely to be area-specific, following patterns laid out in the HOLC’s maps from the early-20th century.

The Color of Law on Sunnyside Ave

I live on Sunnyside Avenue in Arlington, Massachusetts. The neighborhood was built as two subdivisions in 1948, with 42 duplexes (84 homes total). These were starter homes with 792 square feet of finished space plus a basement with a garage. I affectionately refer to them as excellent specimens of mid-century slap-up. They were constructed in the mid 20th century, and the builder just kind of slapped them up.

Here’s one of the original newspaper ads for these homes.

Sunnyide - a Community of Duplexes in Arlington! Priced from $8750!

It’s fun to read the ad copy. The homes are “within walking distance of schools, transportation (MTA) and shopping centers” (a selling point that endures to this day); the lots are “large to provide for individual landscaping” (they’re 3,000 square feet give or take, which is unbuildably small by today’s zoning laws); and the homes have “full-sized dining rooms”, “spacious streamlined kitchens”, and “two large sunny bedrooms” (so much largeness for 792 square feet). I guess this was a time when good salesmanship took precedence over truth in advertising. It was a different time.

I have to admit, they were a pretty good deal. $8750 in 1948 is equivalent to around $95,000 in 2020 dollars; these homes, with the original floor plan, currently sell for around half a million dollars.

However, the part of the ad that most caught my attention was “All Mortgages FHA 25 years”. FHA refers to the Federal Housing Administration, who were the primary mortgage underwriters during the middle of the 20th century. They’re also an example of how the United States used housing policy as a tool for segregation; the FHA was in the business of insuring mortgages for white families in white neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston has a short summary of FHA practices. There’s also discussion of the FHA in Segregated by Design.

Which is to say, my nice little neighborhood in East Arlington was likely designed, built, and sold as a segregated development for whites.

Arlington’s biggest period of residential construction was in the 1920’s when we were building an average of 500 homes/year. But there was still a good deal of single- and two-family construction that took place from the 1930’s to the 1960’s — a bit over 5,000 homes. Since the FHA was the primary mortgage underwriter during that period, I think it’s safe to say that my neighborhood was probably not the only for-whites-only neighborhood in town.

I will end with two questions. How do we feel about this bit of history, and what (if anything) should we do about it?

The Gentrification of Arlington

(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.

Improving Residential Inclusiveness, Sustainability, and Affordability by Ending Single-Family Zoning

(Contributed by Ben Rudick and Steve Revilak)

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:

  1. 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/
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Arlington Can’t Wait for Affordable Housing to Just Naturally Occur

This letter appeared in the Boston Globe on Dec. 19th. It’s reprinted
here with permission from the author, Eugene Benson.

The Dec. 12 letter from Jo Anne Preston unfortunately repeats misinformation making the rounds in Arlington (“Arlington is a case study in grappling with rezoning“).

At April Town Meeting, the Arlington Redevelopment Board recommended a vote of no action on its warrant article that would have allowed increased density along the town’s commercial corridors in exchange for building more affordable housing (known as “incentive zoning”), when it became obvious that the article would be unlikely to gain a two-thirds vote for passage, in part because of the complexity of what was proposed.

A warrant article to allow accessory dwelling units in existing housing (“in-law apartments”) gained more than 60 percent of the vote at Town Meeting but not the two-thirds vote necessary to change zoning.

The letter writer mentioned “naturally occurring affordable apartment buildings.” The typical monthly rent for an apartment in those older buildings ranges from about $1,700 for a one-bedroom to about $2,300 for a two-bedroom, according to real estate data from CoStar. Those are not affordable rents for lower-income people. For example, a senior couple with the national average Social Security income of about $2,500 per month would spend most of their income just to pay the rent.

We need to protect the ability of people with lower incomes to withstand rent increases and gentrification. That, however, requires a different approach than hoping for naturally occurring affordable housing to be there even five years from now.

Eugene B. Benson

Arlington

The writer’s views expressed here are his own, and are not offered on behalf of the Arlington Redevelopment Board, of which he is a member.

The Metro Mayors Coalition’s Housing Task Force

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.

The MMC established a set of ten guiding principles, which are as follows:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Housing Affordability. We welcome and will invest in the development of housing that is affordable to low-, moderate-, and middle-income households.
  5. 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.
  6. Fair Housing. We are committed to addressing discrimination against tenants and buyers, and advancing fair and equitable access to housing opportunity for everyone.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

When was Arlington’s Housing Built?

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:

Bar chart showing Arlington housing by decade built.

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.