Will More Arlington Housing Raise Town Costs For Schools?

Prepared by: Barbara Thornton with the capable assistance of Alex Bagnall, Pamela Hallett, Patrick Hanlon, Karen Kelleher, Steve Revilak and Jennifer Susse.

As Arlington considers new zoning and other policy decisions to increase the amount of affordable housing in the town, a concern has been raised about the threat of greater costs to the Town’s budget from new people with school age children moving into the town. The concern: additional children in the public schools costs the town more than the additional new property tax revenue the Town collects from the new housing.

This post examines this concern, drawing on data from two recent housing developments, representing 283 units of housing in Arlington, to determine that actually the Town budget gains over 4.5 times the actual cost of paying for the students. According to the most recent 2020 tax bills, the Town expects to collect $1,250,370 in revenue and to spend an additional $269,589 for the new Arlington Public School students living in these developments.

The data suggests that the fear of increased school costs, overwhelming the potential new revenue from new housing construction is not warranted.

For more information, see the full post here.

What’s important for Housing – a Community Conversation

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.

Social Justice Issues

197 dots, plus a post-it note that reads “Increasing housing while preserving open space” (with three dots).

Lifestyle Options

Providing for different lifestyles: empty nesters, single millenials, young parents, families, walkable neighborhoods.

Lifestyle Options

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.

Housing Affordability

Affordable housing from subsidies, from construction of smaller units, or from building more housing to reduce the bidding price on current Arlington homes.

Housing Affordability

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 downtown to encourage more density and housing in the same buildings as businesses. More housing + transit = a better society.
  • Protect neighborhoods

This was clearly the topic that got 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.

Maximizing Flexibility of Home Space

81 dots, and three post-it notes:

  • Change zoning to allow accessory dwelling apartments (aka in-law apartments) (1 dot)
  • Want nearby widowed mom to live in own house.
  • Accessible rentals, not up 3 flights of stairs.

Doing more with Existing Resources

Examining current Arlington Housing Authority, Housing Corporation of Arlington, and aging apartment buildings for addressing new housing needs.

Doing more with Existing Resources

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.

Setting a ten-year goal for new housing

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.

Exclusionary Zoning in Arlington Began in 1950’s

by Alexander vonHoffman, Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University, February 2006

The case study shows that in the 1970s the Town of Arlington completely abandoned its policy of encouraging development of apartment buildings—and high-rise buildings at that—and adopted requirements that severely constricted the possibilities for developing multifamily dwellings. Although members of the elite introduced the new approach, they were backed by rank-and-file citizens, who took up the cause to protect their neighborhoods from perceived threats.

The report outlines an intentional effort using land use and planning tools like zoning and building approvals, to exclude those with less desirable income or racial characteristics from residing in Arlington. Additional perspectives on Arlington’s exclusionary zoning efforts during this period are reported here.

Developers- A Dirty Word?

Last Spring, as Town Meeting considered zoning options for increasing the amount of housing, including affordable housing in Arlington, some citizens rallied against this effort. The reason: Housing is built by developers. Developers are greedy and can not be trusted. Ergo the community must prohibit developers. But much of the Arlington now cherished was planned and built by developers.

This article from the New York Times helps shed a perspective on the role of developers and suggests ways they are critically important to improving and revitalizing communities over time. Yes some developers’ interests may diverge from the community’s interests. Clear land use planning and regulations make it a better opportunity for both sides. Good developers bring skills in planning, finance, architecture and community engagement. They work with the risk that if they do the job well, they make some money. They could lose money. They don’t get paid by the hour. Both sides, community and developer, take risks. But there are rewards for each side too when the sides work together.

Arlington & Exclusionary Zoning History

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).

See the complete report for more information.

1924: Arlington was pro-growth. 1945: Zoning district allows 4 stories, 60 ft building heights
1970’s: Anti-growth movement reverses prior policy Stops multi-family development Reduces density in more zoning districts
2015: Arlington re-examines zoning, begins to see current residents priced out of housing, Transit corridors become more important Master Plan completed

The Cost of Housing in Arlington

(This post originally appeared as a one-page handout, distributed at The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston.)

Source: Arlington, MA 2018 Annual Report

This chart shows the assessed value of Arlington’s low density housing from 2015–2019 (assessed values generally reflect market values from two years prior). During this time, home values increased between 39% (single-family homes) and 48% (two-family homes). Most of the change comes from the increasing cost of land. As a point of comparison, the US experienced 7.7% inflation during the same period. (1)

Arlington has constructed six apartment buildings in the 44 years since the town’s zoning bylaw was rewritten in 1975; we constructed 75 of them in the preceding 44 years.(2) Like numerous communities in the Metro-Boston area, we’re experiencing a high demand for housing, but our zoning regulations have created a paper wall that prevents more housing — including affordable housing — from being built.

Communities need adequate housing, but they also need housing diversity: different types of housing at different price points. The housing needs of young adults are different than the housing needs of parents with children, which are in turn different than the housing needs of senior citizens. As demographics change, housing needs change too. Keeping people in town means providing them with the opportunity to upsize or downsize when the need arises.

If Arlington’s housing costs had only increased with the rate of inflation, the cost of single family housing would average $581K, over $170K less than today. The median household income in Arlington is about $103K/year.(3) Buying an average single family-home with that income on a typical 30-year mortgage would require approximately 46% of a household’s monthly income.(4)

Either homes in Arlington will only be available to people who have much more substantial incomes than current residents, or the town will find a way to balance the rapidly growing cost of land against the housing needs of its current citizens, those still in school, those preparing to downsize as well as those looking for a bigger space.

In addition, Arlington’s commercial economy will thrive with a greater number of housing units so we can keep the empty nesters, and the new college graduates who have lived in the town for years, as well as welcome new Arlingtonians to support our local businesses, restaurants and other services.

Our Town, like others in the state, is looking for ways to balance the needs of our citizens with the market forces of rising land costs while maintaining a healthy, diverse community.


  1. The inflation amount comes from Inflation amount from https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl.
  2. Figures on multi-family unit construction are taken from Arlington Assessor’s data. They reflect multi-family buildings that are still used as rental apartments.
  3. Income levels come from 2013-2017 ACS 5-year data for Arlington, MA.
  4. Assuming 10% downpayment, 4% interest, $800/year for insurance, and Arlington’s $11.26 tax rate, the monthly mortgage payment would be nearly $4000/month.

Arlington Report on Demolitions & Replacement Homes

(DRAFT – 7/11/2019)


prepared by Arlington Planning & Community Development Dept.

Arlington Planning Department officials report on options for the Town to mitigate the effects of housing demolitions and housing replacements in neighborhoods.

Evidence suggests that lack of appropriate regulatory policies have led to incidences of “mcmansions” and other issues that concern neighborhood residents. This study looks at the data, the policy and regulatory options for Arlington. It also looks at how comparable nearby communities have managed similar circumstances.

This 42 page report covers a great deal of data and analysis of homes by zoning district, gaps in the effectiveness of the current regulatory structure, affects on affordability in Arlington by zoning district, information on housing prices and sales, etc.

“Best practices” include descriptions of demolition delay, expansion of local historic districts, neighborhood conservation districts, design review standards and guidelines and possible revisions to the regulatory framework in Arlington. The report also includes interesting case examples of how comparable communities near Arlington handle these issues.

This report was presented to the Arlington Select Board on July 22.

Read the complete report and see the available data and tables.