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.)

63 Percent in Greater Boston Back Accessory Dwelling Units

from Banker & Tradesman, March 10, 2020: https://www.bankerandtradesman.com/63-percent-in-greater-boston-back-adus/ B&T produced a terrific report on the strong interest across the nation in allowing more ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) . This follows after California recently passed strong “YIMBY” legislation encouraging the developement of ADU’s.

“A new, nationwide survey from real estate website Zillow has found that nearly two-thirds of Boston-area residents want the ability to convert their single-family homes into multifamily units.

While the survey conducted across 20 of the nation’s largest metro areas found three in four respondents agree local governments should do more to keep housing affordable, and most agree that allowing more building would help, they remain skeptical of large, multifamily buildings.

The latest Zillow Housing Aspirations Report asked homeowners for their feelings about how best to help quell affordability issues by allowing more homes into their neighborhoods, and comes as in-law suites and backyard cottages gain attention as possible solutions to sharply rising housing costs.

Housing experts say even modest rezoning to allow for more accessory dwelling and small multifamily units could spur the creation of millions of new homes nationwide. Even rezoning limited to areas near MBTA stations would enable the construction of enough units to meet most of the units the state needs to build by 2025 to satisfy demand, according to the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.

Small multifamily buildings – those between two and four units – are increasingly being promoted in some corners as so-called “missing middle” housing that can increase both supply and affordability because the structures often cost less to build than larger multifamily ones.

“In an era of historically low supply and escalating housing prices, the need for more solutions to create housing opportunities is greater than ever. Our latest research shows that homeowners in major markets are generally supportive of providing a range of housing options that allow for not only more housing units, but also a diversity of housing types in existing communities,” Zillow senior economist Cheryl Young said in a statement. “Homeowners may continue to shy away from adding large multifamily buildings nearby, but are open to adding units in their own backyards. This ‘missing middle’ housing, they believe, could help alleviate the housing crunch without sacrificing neighborhood look and feel while improving local amenities and transit. These findings show that broad-based support, especially from homeowners, provides the middle ground necessary to move the needle needed to bring relief to the housing crunch.”

In Greater Boston, 63 percent of survey respondents said homeowners should be able to add additional housing units to their property, compared to 57 percent in Minneapolis, where city officials last year eliminated single-family zoning city-wide in an effort to boost housing production and affordability.

Nationwide, 57 percent of those surveyed backed the ideas of increasing density on single-family lots, and 30 percent said they would be willing to invest money to create housing on their own property if allowed.

The strongest support comes from younger and lower-income homeowners and those in the West, where housing tends to be the most expensive. The highest support was in the San Diego (70 percent), Seattle (67 percent) and San Francisco (64 percent) metros, and the lowest was in the Detroit (47 percent), Phoenix (50 percent) and Dallas (51 percent) areas.

Support also was strongest among homeowners of color – two-thirds (67 percent) of Black homeowners supported this type of density, compared with just over half (54 percent) of white homeowners. Zillow researchers speculated in an announcement that this may be related to persistent homeownership gaps driven in large part by historical discriminatory and exclusionary housing policies.

Advocacy was more muted for larger multifamily buildings. Only 37 percent of homeowners surveyed nationwide said they would support a large apartment building or complex in their neighborhood – and that support was more starkly divided among generations. Nearly 60 percent of homeowners aged 18 to 34 were open to large buildings, compared with only a quarter of those 55 and older.

However new housing construction comes about, more than three-quarters of homeowners surveyed said single-family neighborhoods should remain that way, with more older homeowners (81 percent) agreeing than younger homeowners (69 percent). And a little more than half said adding homes was acceptable if they fit in with the general look and feel of the neighborhood. Homeowners expressed concern about the impact of more homes on traffic and parking, with 76 percent saying that it would have a negative impact. About half said it would have a positive impact on amenities and transit.

Still, about two-thirds of homeowners (64 percent) said that more homes in single-family neighborhoods would have a positive effect on the overall availability of more-affordable housing options. Support for this sentiment was highest in Greater Boston, at 68 percent.”

Myths & Facts About Affordable Housing & Density

This timely report on the question of affordable housing vs. density comes from the California Dept. of Housing & Community Development and mirrors the situation in the region surrounding Arlington MA.

Housing production has not kept up with job and household growth.   The location and type of new housing does not meet the needs of many new house- holds. As a result, only one in five households can afford a typical home, overcrowding doubled in the 1990’s, and too many households pay more than they can afford for their housing.

Myth #1
High-density housing is affordable housing; affordable
housing is high-density housing.
Fact #1
Not all high density housing is affordable to low-income families.

Myth #2
High-density and affordable housing will cause too much traffic.
Fact #2
People who live in affordable housing own fewer cars and
drive less.

Myth #3
High-density development strains public services and
infrastructure.
Fact #3
Compact development offers greater efficiency in use of
public services and infrastructure.

Myth #4
People who live in high-density and affordable housing
won’t fit into my neighborhood.
Fact #4
People who need affordable housing already live and work
in your community.

Myth #5
Affordable housing reduces property values.
Fact #5
No study in California has ever shown that affordable
housing developments reduce property values.

Myth #6
Residents of affordable housing move too often to be stable
community members.
Fact #6
When rents are guaranteed to remain stable, tenants
move less often.

Myth #7
High-density and affordable housing undermine community
character.
Fact #7
New affordable and high-density housing can always be
designed to fit into existing communities.

Myth #8
High-density and affordable housing increase crime.
Fact #8
The design and use of public spaces has a far more
significant affect on crime than density or income levels.

See an example of a “case study” of two affordable housing developments in Irvine CA, San Marcos at 64 units per acre.

Affordable housing: San Marcos Apartments, Irvine CA, 64 units/ acre

San Paulo at 25 units per acre.

Affordable housing at San Paulo apartments, Irvine CA, 25 units/ acre.

Both are designed to blend with nearby homes.

Towns Join for Regional Approach to Affordable Housing

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.

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

New Library Designed to Include Affordable Housing

A recently constructed project with 44 units of affordable housing shares a footprint with a new public library in this Chicago neighborhood. The Mayor and the Housing Authority initiated a competition for proposals from architecture firms to build projects that feature the “co-location” of uses, “shared spaces that bring communities together”, according to a recent article by Josephine Minutillo in ARCHITECTURAL RECORD (October 2019).

This project is an excellent example of how a municipal policy (increasing affordable housing) can drive creativity to meet policy goals. This project resulted from a combination of publicly owned land, municipal initiative, a quasi public housing agency expertise and a private architecture/ developer with a commitment to affordable housing. Could a project like this work in Arlington MA?

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.

Observations

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.