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.

Real Estate Transfer Tax Funds for Affordable Housing

The City of Somerville estimates that a 2% real estate transfer fee — with 1% paid by sellers and 1% paid by buyers, and that exempts owner-occupants (defined as persons residing in the property for at least two years) — could generate up to $6 million per year for affordable housing. The hotter the market, and the greater the number of property transactions, the more such a fee would generate.

Other municipalities are also looking at this legislation but need “home rule” permission, one municipality at a time, from the state to enact it locally. Or, alternatively, legislation could be passed at the state level to allow all municipalities to opt into such a program and design their own terms. This would be much like the well regarded Community Preservation Act (CPA) program that provides funds for local governments to do historic preservation, conservation, etc.

This memorandum from the City of Somerville to the legislature provides a great deal of information on the history, background and justification for such legislation.

House bill 1769, filed January, 2019, is an “Act supporting affordable housing with a local option for a fee to be applied to certain real estate transactions“.

COMMENT:

KK:  This article suggests Arlington may be likely to pass a real estate transfer tax:  https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/12/19/boston-one-step-closer-to-a-luxury-real-estate-transfer-tax/

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.

New Housing Offers Fiscal Benefits to Communities

A study by Elise Rapoza and Michael Goodman shows that new housing construction in MA does not have an adverse affect on municipal or school budgets. And when it might, state funding covers the difference. This study contradicts the often heard argument against new housing development, especially multi-family housing, because it, the argument claims, it will have a negative fiscal impact on communities.

In the aggregate, development of new housing offers net fiscal benefit to both municipalities and the state. Additional analysis validates a second study which found that increased housing production does not predict enrollment changes in Massachusetts school districts. In the new study, a distinct minority of municipalities did incur net fiscal burdens—burdens that the net new state tax proceeds associated with the development of new housing are more than sufficient to offset.

Minneapolis Zones for Diversity

Minneapolis is the most recent governmental entity to disrupt the almost 110 year old idea of local zoning in America by overriding single family zoning. Zoning was developed in the the early 1900’s to control property rights and, in part, to limit access to housing by race. These early laws were upheld by the courts in the 1930’s and the use of zoning to control private property for the interests of the majority became common. Houston Texas did not adopt zoning, an outlier in the nation.

But recently governments are rethinking zoning in light of evidence of exclusionary practices including racism and inadequate supplies of affordable housing. In July Oregon’s legislature voted to essentially ban single family zoning in the state.

Most recently, in the end of July, Minneapolis became the first city this century to remove single family zoning, allowing two family housing units to enter any single family zone as of right. According to the Bloomberg News article, the city took action to remedy the untenable price increases do to single family homes taking a disproportionate amount of city land and services. They hope a wider range of housing, and more housing, will reduce housing costs in the future.

Read the full story from Bloomberg News.