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.

Consider the Schools: Add More Housing

Jennifer Susse authored this letter on January 20, 2020. Ms. Susse is a member of the Arlington School Committee and a Town Meeting Member. She closely follows the costs and demographic trends of school enrollment and of Town finances.

I write in support of efforts to increase housing in Arlington, both as a resident and as a member of the School Committee. I support these efforts not in spite of their potential effects on our schools, but because of their potential effects on both schools and town.

I have often spoken to the community about our rapid enrollment growth — over 2,000 students added in the last 25 years, 60 percent of those in the last 10 years. Because of these large enrollment increases the Arlington Public Schools have had to add capacity, which the town has generously supported. So how can I be in favor of adding more housing to Arlington, and thus potentially adding even more students to our already stressed school facilities?

Losing diversity
I will get to the capacity issue in a bit, but first I want to point out that in the last 30 years Arlington has lost both economic and generational diversity. The story about the loss of economic diversity is well known; the loss of generational diversity less so.

Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of residents between 20 and 34 dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent. During that same period, the population over 65 dropped from 18 percent to 16 percent. What replaced these demographic groups were primarily residents between the ages of 35 and 54 and 0 and 14. In other words, mostly families with school-aged children. The loss of both types of diversity weakens the fabric of our community. However, the loss of generational diversity also weakens the town’s finances.

The average cost to the town of an additional student is about $8,500, a number that includes what’s known as the Enrollment Growth Factor (the amount that the town gives to the schools for each additional student in the system, currently at 50 percent of the per pupil cost of the preceding year, or $7,297), as well as the average cost of the benefits that the town pays for new hires.

What this means is that during the time a household has children in the school system, it is likely receiving more in benefits than it pays in taxes. For the town’s finances to work, we also need people who do not have children to live and pay taxes in Arlington, including young adults and older adults for whom Arlington is becoming less affordable because of condo conversions, teardowns, etc.

Overcrowded classrooms
But what about our overcrowded classrooms? The answer is that given the type of housing likely to be created on the main corridors, and the timing of that housing construction, I am not worried about further stresses to our school facilities.

By the time new housing is built, our elementary-aged population will likely be in modest decline. Five to 10 years out we expect to see enrollment stabilize at the middle and high school levels as well. That does not mean that we will have tons of extra space; just that we will no longer be in danger of taking over art, music, and literacy rooms for general classroom use.

Enrollment projections made by Dr. Jerome McKibbin in 2015 have so far been fairly accurate. His revised projections show that, without additional housing, we are expected to have 350 fewer elementary-aged students in the Arlington Public Schools 12 years from now than we have today.

The discussion about housing in Arlington reminds me of the discussion a few years ago over the Affordable Care Act. At that time, there was a lot of anxiety about potential changes to the health-care system, but insufficient appreciation (in my opinion) of the then current trends.

Zoning changes
Any discussion of zoning changes in Arlington must take an honest look at where we are now, and the direction we are headed in if there were no zoning changes. Our current trends have us losing natural affordability and economic and demographic diversity because of teardowns, condo conversions and sharp price increases. We don’t have the option to freeze Arlington as we know it today (or 10 years ago) in place.

In closing, I would like to say that I am proud of our excellent schools and strongly believe that families who have recently moved to Arlington have strengthened our community, but I do not want Arlington to become a place where people move in with toddlers and move out soon as their children graduate from high school. The current trends have us losing both economic and generational diversity, which threatens not only our community and civic life, but our financial health as well. Adding more and diverse housing can help.

“Surging Seas” Risk Zone Map Shows Arlington Wetlands Threat

Climate Central’s Surging Seas global Risk Zone Map provides the ability to explore inundation ​risk ​up to 30 meters across the world’s coastlines as well as local sea level rise projections at over 1,000 tide gauges on 6 continents.

Set the map for Boston MA and focus in on the Arlington area to see how the town would be affected by rising sea levels, as predicted over the next few decades.

Map areas below the selected water level are displayed as satellite imagery shaded in blue indicating vulnerability to flooding from combined sea level rise, storm surge, and tides, or to permanent submergence by long-term sea level rise. Map areas above the selected water level are shown in map style using white and pale grays. The map is searchable by city, state, postal code, and other location names. The map is embeddable, and users can customize and download map screenshots using the camera icon in the top right of the screen.

For map areas in the U.S., the Risk Zone map incorporates the latest, high-resolution, high-accuracy lidar elevation data supplied by NOAA, displays points of interest, and contains layers displaying social vulnerability and population density. For map areas outside the U.S. the map utilizes elevation data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).

Arlington wetlands on interactive map set to show future 8 foot water rise.

https://ss2.climatecentral.org/?#13/42.4074/-71.1100?show=satellite&projections=0-K14_RCP85-SLR&level=8&unit=feet&pois=hide

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.

Transit Corridor Strategy for More Housing

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

Ease Regional Housing Crisis: Four Tasks

According to a Nov. 26, 2019 Boston GLOBE editorial, there are four tasks necessary to ease the housing crisis in the Greater Boston Region:

  1. Champion housing production and affordability at the state level.
  2. Urge private-sector investment in housing solutions.
  3. Drive inclusive growth.
  4. Get more involved locally.

This editorial by Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation and Arlington resident, Karen E. Kelleher, executive director of LISC Boston, explain these four tasks. They also describe how much other, comparable urban areas around the US are doing to solve similar housing problems. We are not keeping up with solutions. It will take a collective effort. “Next Level Housing Solutions” is a collaboration of concerned organizations and community leaders intended to move the region toward housing solutions.

Join the Conversation. Click here to join the Next Level Housing Solutions conversation.  This just means you will receive information and event updates.

Two Different Housing Crises

By Luc Schuster, CommonWealth Magazine, 11/16/19

There are actually two parts to the housing crisis now facing the region.

First, our society acknowledges the need to respect human rights and to provide a safety net for many for health care, food, etc. But there are no safety nets for housing. What Massachusetts has is a cobbled together patchwork of low-income housing programs and subsidies. But it leaves far too many behind.

Second, middle income families headed by school teachers, salespeople, nurses, non-profit workers, and retirees living on fixed incomes can not afford the average price of housing in the Greater Boston region. There are solutions, like allowing more density around public transit corridors and like permitting zoning changes to pass with a simple majority. Zoning changes are also necessary to move us toward a more sustainable environment.

What Is Impact on Arlington School Costs of More Housing?

Does Arlington need more housing? If yes, will more housing result in higher school costs? There is a perception that more housing means more school age children and more school age children will strain the capacity and expand the budget of the Arlington Public Schools.

Prelimary reviews suggest that more housing would not strain the APS capacity for a variety of complex reasons. These reasons include: school age children do not always go to APS; by the time new housing came on line, the school enrollment, now growing, will have begun to decline; Arlington needs more diverse kinds of housing, not just family housing; the 283 units of housing that came on line through Brigham Square and 360 contributed more in property tax revenue than they cost in school enrollment costs…. by over $980K in 2019. Read this for more information.

More analysis is needed. More discussion is needed. These are complicated and nuanced issues. Readers with additional comments should send them to info@equitable-arlington.org.

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.