Yes on Article 16

Article 16 is a proposal to encourage the production of affordable housing in the town of Arlington. I brought this article to town meeting for several reasons, namely, our increasing cost of housing and our increasing cost of land. Arlington is part of the Metropolitan Boston area; we share borders with Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford, and are a mere 5.5 miles from Boston itself. Years ago, people moved out of cities and into the suburbs. That trend has reversed during the last decade, and people are moving back to urban areas, including Metro-Boston. Metro-Boston is a good source of jobs; people come here to work and want to live nearby. That obviously puts pressure on housing prices, and Arlington is not immune from that pressure.

Another reason for proposing Article 16 was my desire to start a conversation about the role our zoning laws play in the cost of housing, and how they might be used to relieve some of that burden. During the 20th century people discovered that one cannot draw a line on a map and say “upper-class households on this side, lower-class households on that side”, but one can draw a line on a map and say “single-family homes on this side, and apartments on that side”. For all practical purposes, the latter achieves the same result as the former. When zoning places a threshold on the cost of housing, it determines who can and cannot afford to live in a given area.

Today 70% of Arlington’s land is exclusively zoned for single family homes, the predominant form of housing in town. In 2013, the median cost of a single-family home was $472,850; this rose to $618,800 in 2018 — an increase of 31%. We can break this down further. The median building cost for a single-family building rose from $226,300 in 2013 to $248,100 in 2018 (an increase of 9.6%), and the median cost for a single-family lot rose from $243,700 to $360,900 (an increase of 48%). Land is a large component of our housing costs, and it continues to rise. Certain neighborhoods (e.g., Kelwyn Manor) saw substantial increases in land assessments in 2019, enough that the Assessor’s office issued a statement to explain the property tax increases. To that end, multifamily housing is a straightforward way to reduce the land costs associated with housing. Putting two units on a lot instead of one decreases the land cost by 50% for each unit.

Article 16 tries to encourage the production of affordable housing (restricted to 60% of the area median income for rentable units and 70% for owner-occupied units). It works as follows:

  • Projects of six or more units must make 15% of those units affordable. This is part of our existing bylaws.
  • Projects of twenty or more units must make 20% of those units affordable. This is a new provision in Article 16.
  • Projects of six or more units that produce more than the required number of affordable units will be eligible for density bonuses, according to the proposed section 8.2.4(C). Essentially, this allows a developer to build a larger building, in exchange for creating more affordable housing.
  • Projects of six or more units that produce only the required number of affordable units are not eligible for the density bonuses contained in 8.2.4(C).
  • Projects of 4-5 units will be eligible for the density bonuses in section 8.2.4(C), as long as they are of a use, and in a zone contained in those tables. This provision is intended to permit smaller apartments and townhouses, filling a need for residents who don’t necessarily want (or may not be able to afford) a single-family home. This provision can help reduce land costs by allowing a four-unit townhouse in place of a duplex, for example.

Historically, Arlington has had mixed results with affordable housing production, mainly due to the limited opportunity to build projects of six units or more. It is my hope that the density bonuses allow more of these projects to be built.

In conclusion, the problem of housing affordability in Arlington comes from a variety of pressures, is several years in the making, and will likely take years to address. I see Article 16 as the first step down a long road, and I ask for your support during the 2019 Town Meeting. I’d also ask for your support on articles 6, 7, and 8 which contain minor changes to make Article 16 work properly.

What is a Master Plan?

Article 1 in a series on the Arlington, MA master planning process. Prepared by Barbara Thornton

Arlington, located about 15 miles north west of Boston, is now developing a master plan that will reflect the visions and expectations of the community and will provide enabling steps for the community to move toward this vision over the next decade or two. Initial studies have been done, public meetings have been held. The Town will begin in January 2015 to pull together the vision for its future as written in a new Master Plan.

In developing a new master plan, the Town of Arlington follows in the footsteps laid down thousands of years ago when Greeks, Romans and other civilizations determined the best layout for a city before they started to build. In more recent times, William Penn laid out his utopian view of Philadelphia with a gridiron street pattern and public squares in 1682. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant developed the hub and spoke street plan for Washington DC in 1798. City planning started with new cities, relatively empty land and a “master builder” typically an architect, engineer or landscape architect commissioned by the land holders to develop a visionary design.

In the 1900’s era of Progressive government in America, citizens sought ways to reach a consensus on how their existing cities should evolve. State and federal laws passed to help guide this process, seeing land use decisions as more than just a private landowner’s right but rather a process that involved improving the health and wellbeing of the entire community. While the focus on master planning was and still is primarily physical, 21st century master planners are typically convened by the local municipality, work with the help of trained planners and architects and rely heavily on the knowledge and participation of their citizenry to reflect a future vision of the health and wellbeing of the community. This vision is crafted into a Master Plan. In Arlington the process is guided by Carol Kowalski, Director of Planning and Community Development, with professional support from RKG Associates, a company of planners and architects and with the vision of the Master Planning advisory committee, co-chaired by Carol Svenson and Charles Kalauskas, Arlington residents, and by the citizens who share their concerns and hopes with the process as it evolves. This happens through public meetings, letters, email, and surveys. The most recent survey asks residents to respond on transportation modes and commuting patterns

We all do planning. Starting a family, a business or a career, we lay out our goals and assume the steps necessary to accomplish these goals and we periodically revise them as necessary. The same thing is true for cities. Based on changes in population, economic development, etc. cities, from time to time, need to revise their plans. In Massachusetts the enabling acts for planning and zoning are here http://www.mass.gov/hed/community/planning/zoning-resources.html. The specific law for Massachusetts is MGL Ch. 41 sect. 81D. This plan, whether called a city plan, master plan, general plan, comprehensive plan or development plan, has some constant characteristics independent of the specific municipality: focus on the built environment, long range view (10-20 years), covers the entire municipality, reflects the municipality’s vision of its future, and how this future is to be achieved. Typically it is broken out into a number of chapters or “elements” reflecting the situation as it is, the data showing the potential opportunities and concerns and recommendations for how to maximize the desired opportunities and minimize the concerns for each element.

Since beginning the master planning process in October, 2012, Arlington has had a number of community meetings (see http://vod.acmi.tv/category/government/arlingtons-master-plan/ ) gathering ideas from citizens, sharing data collected by planners and architects and moving toward a sense of what the future of Arlington should look like. The major elements of Arlington’s plan include these elements:
1. Visions and Goals http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19829
2. Demographic Characteristics http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19838
3. Land Use http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19834
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19825
4. Transportation http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19830
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19822
5. Economic Development http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19837
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19828
6. Housing http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19835
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19826
7. Open Space and Recreation http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19832
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19824
8. Historic and Cultural Resources http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19836
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19827
9. Public Facilities and Services http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19831
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19823
10. Natural Resources
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19824

The upcoming articles in this series will focus on each individual element in the Town of Arlington’s Master Plan.