Accessory Dwelling Units

Accessory Dwelling Units (aka “granny flats”)

The following information was presented to the Arlington Redevelopment Board in October, 2020 by Barbara Thornton, TMM, Precinct 16

This Article 19 proposes to allow Accessory Dwelling Units, “as of right”, in each of the 8 residential zoning districts in Arlington.

Why is this zoning legislation important?

Arlington is increasingly losing the diversity it once had.  It has become increasingly difficult for residents who have grown up and grown old in the town to remain here.  This will only become more difficult as the effects of tax increases to support the new schools, including the high school, role into the tax bills for lower income residents and senior citizens on a fixed income.  For young adults raised in Arlington, the price of a home to buy or to rent is increasingly out of reach.

Who does it benefit?

  1. To provide flexibility for families as their needs change over time and, in particular
  2. provide options for older adults to be able to stay in their homes and
  3. for households with disabled persons;
  • To increase the diversity of housing choices in the Town while respecting the residential character and scale of existing neighborhoods;
    • To provide a non-subsidized form of housing that is generally less costly and more affordable than similar units in multifamily buildings;
    • To add housing units to Arlington’s total housing stock with minimal adverse effects on Arlington’s neighborhoods.

What authority and established policy is this built on?

Arlington’s Master Plan is the foundational document establishing the validity and mission for pursuing the zoning change that will allow Accessory Dwelling Units.

Under Introduction in Part 5, Housing and Residential Development, the Master Plan states:  Arlington’s Master Plan provides a framework for addressing key issues such as affordability, transit-oriented residential development, and aging in place.

The Master Plan states that the American Community Survey (ACS) reports that Arlington’s housing units are slightly larger than those in other inner-suburbs and small cities. In Arlington, the median number of rooms per unit is 5.7.  There is a great deal of difference in density and housing size among the different Arlington neighborhoods.  The generally larger size of homes makes it easier to contemplate a successful move to encourage ADUs.

What do other municipalities do?

According to a study (https://equitable-arlington.org/2020/02/16/accessory-dwelling-units-policies/), by 2017 65 out of 101 municipalities in the greater Boston (MAPC) region allowed Accessory Dwelling Units by right or by special permit. The average number of ADU’s added per year was only about 3.  But by 2017, Lexington had 75 ADUs and Newton had 73.  Both of these communities were among about 10 “as of right” municipalities in the MAPC region.  This finding suggests that communities with more restrictions are less likely to see any significant affordable housing benefits.

Even in the midst of a housing crisis in this region, according to Amy Dain, housing expert, (https://equitable-arlington.org/2020/02/18/zoning-for-accessory-dwelling-units/) most municipalities still have zoning laws that restrict single family home owners from creating more affordable housing.

And this is despite the fact that, as according to Banker & Tradesman, March 10, 2020: https://www.bankerandtradesman.com/63-percent-in-greater-boston-back-adus/, 63% of people in the region approve of ADUs.  California has recently passed strong pro-ADU legislation.  A study by Zillow further corroborated this strong interest in communities across the US, including our region.  https://equitable-arlington.org/2020/03/10/adu-popularity/.

Key points about ADU’s in Arlington:

Why is this zoning legislation important?

  1. Arlington is losing the diversity it once had. 
  2. It has become increasingly difficult for residents who have grown up and grown old in the town to remain here. 
  3. This will only become more difficult as the effects of tax increases to support the new schools, including the high school, roll into the tax bills for lower income residents and senior citizens on a fixed income. 
  4. For young adults raised in Arlington, the price of a home to buy or to rent is increasingly out of reach.

Who benefits from ADUs?

  1. Families who need flexibility as their needs change over time
  2. Older adults who need support and/or income to stay in their OWN homes
  3. Households with disabled persons
  4. Residents who value a diversity of housing choices in the Town
  5. People needing a non-subsidized form of housing that is generally less costly and more affordable than similar units in multifamily buildings
  6. People concerned about climate change who want more “sustainable” living options in town

What authority and established policy is this ADU article built on?

  1. Arlington’s Master Plan is the foundational document establishing the validity and mission for pursuing the zoning change that will allow Accessory Dwelling Units.
  2. Under Introduction in Part 5, Housing and Residential Development, the Master Plan states:  Arlington’s Master Plan provides a framework for addressing key issues such as affordability, transit-oriented residential development, and aging in place.
  3. The Master Plan states that the American Community Survey (ACS) reports Arlington’s housing units are slightly larger than those in other inner-suburbs and small cities. In Arlington, the median number of rooms per unit is 5.7.  There is a great deal of difference in density and housing size among the different Arlington neighborhoods.  The generally larger size of homes makes it easier to contemplate a successful move to encourage ADUs.

What do other municipalities do?

  1. To be successful, they minimize restrictive requirements for ADU approval.
    1. According to a 2017 study by Alexandra Levering, Tufts University,  (https://equitable-arlington.org/2020/02/16/accessory-dwelling-units-policies/), 65 out of 101 municipalities in the greater Boston (MAPC) region allowed Accessory Dwelling Units by right or by special permit. The average number of ADU’s added per year was only about 3.  But by 2017, Lexington had 75 ADUs and Newton had 73.  Both of these communities were among about 10 “as of right” municipalities in the MAPC region.  This finding suggests that communities with more restrictions are less likely to see any significant affordable housing benefits.  In 2016 Lexington realized they needed to amend their current ADU by-law to reduce the restrictions.  That enabled them to gain for more ADUs.

Why is it important to avoid additional requirements, and instead respect the existing administration of building codes and life safety codes by town government professionals?

  1. State and local building codes are administered by Town professional staff in Inspectional Services Dept.
  2. State and Federal Life Safety codes are administered by Town professional staff in Fire Dept.
  3. The wide range of housing styles, types and ages will almost certainly require the home owner to hire a professional contractor to bring their property into code compliance for adding an ADU.
  4. The professional contractor will work closely with Town professionals, on a case by case basis, to make sure each property is in compliance before it can be certified for occupancy.
  5. Compliance with Building and Life Safety codes already will make this a complicated process.  If Arlington wants more housing diversity for the “missing middle”, now is the time to move forward with the approval of Accessory Dwelling Units, by amending the Zoning Code with this proposed Article 19.

Why Should Arlington Have an Affordable Housing Trust Fund?

Arlington has an opportunity to set up an Affordable Housing Trust Fund to provide more housing stability for its low and moderate income residents. The vote will occur in the Town Meeting starting Nov. 16, 2020.

Text of Warrant Article 8: (To be considered at Special Town Meeting (Virtual), Mon. 11/16/20 at 8:00 p.m.)


“ARTICLE 8 ACCEPTANCE OF LEGISLATION/BYLAW AMENDMENT/ MUNICIPAL AFFORDABLE HOUSING TRUST FUND

To see if the Town will vote to accept Massachusetts General Laws c. 44 § 55C, to authorize the creation of a Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund to support the development of affordable housing in Arlington, establish a new bylaw for the administration of same; or take any action related thereto. (Inserted by the Select Board)”


What will it do? How will it work?


A Proactive Step to Address Housing Affordability. With a municipal affordable housing trust, Arlington will join more than 113 Massachusetts municipalities that have formed a housing trust fund to support a proactive strategy for building housing affordability. The Trust is a small step the Town can take to more proactively address the housing affordability crisis that challenges many of our current residents and makes Arlington increasingly inaccessible to new residents. Creating affordable housing can also be a strategy for maintaining or increasing diversity.


Ability to Act Quickly.
A primary benefit of a housing trust is to enable the Town to act quickly to support or participate in transactions that increase or preserve affordable housing in Arlington. Without a Trust, the Town does not have the flexibility or agility to act quickly. Following are some examples, though there are many other ways that trusts can and do advance housing affordability:
• Financing the acquisition and/or development of market properties for conversion to affordable housing by a nonprofit developer;
• Purchasing an existing affordable home to ensure resale to another low income buyer, or purchasing a market rate home to create an affordable homeownership opportunity;
• Providing flexible financing to increase the number of affordable units or reduce income levels in existing or new projects that include affordable housing.


Developing a Housing Trust Strategy Over Time.

The strategies to be pursued by the Trust would be set forth by the Trustees in a plan or proposal(s) they would lay out after they are appointed, most likely after/through a process of public engagement. The specific strategies are, deliberately, not part of the warrant article or the Bylaw proposed for adoption. This allows the Town the flexibility to set and modify the Town’s housing strategies over time, in a manner that is responsive to the public and its elected representatives. The Bylaw requires the strategy or plan, and most major Trust decisions, to be approved by the Select Board, and Town investments in the Trust would still require Town Meeting approval.


Funding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Creating affordable housing requires substantial subsidy. The Trust’s ability to cause more affordable housing to be created or preserved in Arlington will be directly related to the availability of resources to fund it and leverage additional state and federal resources. The vote before the Special Town Meeting this fall will not provide any funding for the Trust.

While it is anticipated that the Trust might receive initial funding via a grant of Community Preservation Act funds from the CPA Committee, to increase our impact, more resources will be needed.


How Other Communities Fund Their Housing Trust Funds.

The Community Preservation Act is the most common source of funding, but the most impactful trusts tend to have a variety of funding sources that result in a steady flow of financial resources into the Trust. Other municipalities have tapped into a variety of additional sources, including inclusionary zoning payments, federal HOME funds, voluntary/negotiated developer payments, proceeds from sale of tax foreclosed or other Town-owned properties, cell tower payments, cannabis-related revenue, short-term rental fees, fees for managing housing lotteries, sale of bonds, general municipal funding, and private donations. Many also donate excess town property to their housing trust for sale and redevelopment as affordable or mixed income housing. More recently, a number of cities and towns have proposed home rule petitions that would allow them to impose a small fee on the transfer of real property to fund their housing trusts, and there is state legislation proposed to authorize cities and towns to impose such transfer fees without sending a Home Rule Petition to the state legislature.


Building Trust Resources Through a Transfer Fee.

The Housing Plan Implementation Committee originally recommended that Town Meeting adopt a bylaw creating a housing trust and create a funding source for it by voting to authorize the filing of a home rule petition to impose a modest real estate transfer fee. Although the Select Board elected to defer consideration of the transfer fee until 2021, such a fee is attractive to many, because it would be borne only by those selling their Arlington homes or properties, and because it provides a mechanism to capture a very small portion of the extraordinary equity increase that Arlington property owners have realized over many years due to regional market forces. The details of such a fee are important and merit further discussion, but it presents a promising potential revenue source to empower the Trust to be proactive.


The Process.

The article in front of the Special Town Meeting would start the process of creating a municipal affordable housing trust. Once approved by Town Meeting the Affordable Housing Trust Bylaw would be submitted to the Attorney General to certify its consistency with the state law governing housing trusts within 90 days. Once so certified, the Town Manager will appoint trustees, including at least one member of the Select Board. Once these appointments are confirmed by the Select Board, the Trustees themselves would lead the process of proposing an initial set of goals and strategies for the Trust to implement, after approval by the Select Board.


Financial Stability & Accountability.

The Trust will be governed by the MAHT law passed in 2005 that specifies powers and limitations for trusts of this type. The proposed Bylaw has been reviewed and modified pursuant to suggestions of the Finance Committee to ensure accountability and financial stability. The Trust will be managed by the Treasurer, will be audited annually, will have legal and practical limitations on its borrowing capacity, and will not have the power to pledge the full faith and credit of the Town.

To learn more about municipal affordable housing trusts, refer to the MHP Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund Guide, v.3

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This information was prepared by Karen Kelleher, Arlington Town Meeting Member, Precinct 5, Member, Arlington Housing Planning Implementation Committee and Executive Director, LISC Boston ( Local Initiative Support Corporation)

Municipal Affordable Housing Trust:

A Guide for Arlington

The Massachusetts Housing Partnership put together this 2018 guidebook, v.3, to help municipalities adopt Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund (MAHT) legislation to suit the specific needs of each municipality.

Arlington is considering the acceptance of enabling legislation in the November 2020 Virtual Town Meeting to create the Town’s own MAHT. This will enable the Town to create a vehicle for receiving and spending funds to assist low and moderate income individuals and families to move toward greater housing stability. The MAHT does not provide money, but it does provide a place where the Town can receive money from a variety of sources to be used for furthering affordable housing. Examples include payments from developers, contributions from bequests and, if approved, a real estate transfer tax on the sale of higher priced homes in Arlington.

Municipal Affordable Housing Trust: how to envision, gain support, and utilize a local Trust to achieve your housing goals.

For more information on how this MAHT can benefit Arlington see: https://equitable-arlington.org/2020/11/09/arlington-affordable-housing-trust-fund/

Multi-family Housing By Right

For Arlington’s Nov 2020 Special Town Meeting, my colleague Ben Rudick filed the following warrant article:

ARTICLE 18: ZONING BYLAW AMENDMENT/IMPROVING RESIDENTIAL INCLUSIVENESS, SUSTAINABILITY, AND AFFORDABILITY BY ENDING SINGLE FAMILY ZONING

To see if the Town will vote to amend the Zoning Bylaw for the Town of Arlington by expanding the set of allowed residential uses in the R0 and R1 zoning districts with the goal of expanding and diversifying the housing stock by altering the district definitions for the R0 and R1 zoning districts; or take any action related thereto.

(Inserted at the request of Benjamin Rudick and ten registered voters)

The Inspiration

Our goal with Article 18 is to allow two-family homes, by right, in two districts that are exclusively zoned for single-family homes. This is similar to what city of Minneapolis and the state of Oregon did in 2019. The motivations fall into three broad categories: the history of single-family zoning as a mechanism for racial segregation, environmental concerns arising from car-oriented suburban sprawl, and the regional shortage of housing and its high cost. We’ll elaborate on these concerns in the following paragraphs, and end with a proposed main motion.

Single-family zoning as a mechanism for racial segregation. Single-family zoning began to take hold in the United States during the 1920’s, after the Supreme Court declared racially-based zoning unconstitutional in 1917. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover encouraged cities and towns to adopt single-family zoning ordinances, effectively substituting segregation based on race with segregation based on economic status. The idea was furthered by the Home Owners Loan Corporation of America’s (HOLC’s) redlining maps (created between 1935 and 1940), and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA’s) mortgage insurance policies from 1934–1968. The HOLC designated areas with black populations as “hazardous” and actuarially risky, and the FHA used these maps when making underwriting decisions. In short, the FHA was in the business of underwriting loans to white home buyers in white neighborhoods.

Of Arlington’s 7,998 single-family homes, 4,080 (51%) were built during 1934–1968 (per Arlington Assessor’s data). The FHA was the primary mortgage underwriter during this time, and we believe it is reasonable to expect that a substantial number of these homes were originally purchased with FHA mortgages. Put another way, most of our single-family housing was likely built according to FHA guidelines of “avoiding inharmonious mixing or races”, aka segregation. Arlington’s population was 99% white in 1970 and even higher during previous decades. We certainly met the criteria of being a white community.

We believe it’s important to recognize this history, and to have a conversation about how we might restore a balance of fairness.

Environmental concerns. When compared with their multi-family counterparts, single-family homes are less energy efficient, more land intensive, and are associated with higher carbon emissions due to ransportation. Car transportation is a useful analogy; having everyone drive in their own car is more carbon-intensive than carpooling (two-family homes), which in turn is more carbon-intensive than taking the bus (3+ unit buildings). Maps created by Berkeley’s Cool Climate Project show this in a clear way: per household carbon emissions are lower in urban areas than they are in the surrounding suburbs. (Note that authors of the Berkeley report do not advocate getting rid of suburbs, but they do state that suburbs will require different carbon reduction strategies than urban areas).

We believe it is more environmentally responsible to build additional homes on sites that are already developed, rather than (say) going out to the suburban fringes along route 495 and clearing half-acre lots. If we do not provide ample housing within Arlington and other inner-ring suburbs, new workers will likely live further out and have longer, more carbon-intensive commutes. Climate change is a crisis, and our response must involve changing how we live, and that includes ending the twentieth-century pattern of suburban sprawl.

The shortage and high cost of housing. Since 2010, the fifteen cities and towns in the Metro Mayor’s coalition have added 148,000 jobs and 110,000 new residents, but have only permitted 32,500 new homes; this has added to a housing shortage that’s been growing for decades. The imbalance between supply and demand has contributed to rising prices and a very hot market. In 2019, the median sale price for homes in Arlington was $821k. We do not expect construction to be a complete solution to Arlington’s housing costs, but we do believe it is a necessary step in meeting rising demand and counteracting rising costs.

Article 18 is most likely to influence the cost of newly-constructed homes. Newly-constructed single-family homes typically sell in the $1.2M–1.5M range while condominiums in new duplexes typically fall into the $800k–1.1M range. These duplex units are not cheap, but they offer a price point roughly four hundred thousand dollars less than new single-family homes.

We also believe our proposal directly addresses three concerns raised by last year’s multi-family proposal (aka 2019 ATM Article 16):

  1. Concentration. Last year’s proposal would have concentrated new housing around the town’s business corridors, and Massachusetts Avenue in particular. Article 18 will spread new housing across the majority of the town, as 60% of Arlington’s land area (and 80% of its residentially-zoned land) is currently zoned exclusively for single-family homes (figures provided by Arlingtons Department of Planning and Community Development).
  2. Height and Shadows. Last year’s proposal would have allowed taller buildings along the commercial corridors; there were concerns about increased height, and the shadows new buildings might cast. Article 18 makes no changes to our zoning bylaw’s dimensional regulation; homes built under this bylaw could be no larger than homes we already allow, by right.
  3. Displacement. Last year’s proposal drew concerns that businesses and apartment renters would be displaced by new construction. Article 18 applies to districts that are exclusively zoned for single-family homes. 95% of our single-family homes are owner-occupied, and can only be rebuilt or renovated with the owner’s consent. We believe this minimizes any risk of displacement.

Finally, we expect the board will be interested in the number of homes that might be added under this proposal, and the potential impact on the school system. We’ll attempt to address those questions here.

Arlington’s report on Demolitions and Replacement Homes states an average of 27 rebuilds or substantial renovations per year, averaged over a ten year period. For the purpose of discussion, we expect the number of new homes added under this proposed bylaw change to be somewhere between half and double that amount, or 14–54 homes/year. Arlington has 7,998 single-family homes so this is a replacement rate well under 1%/year. It will be nothing like the 500 new homes/year that Arlington was building during the 1920s.

Assessing the impact on the school system amounts (in part) to estimating the number of new school students created by the addition of 14–54 homes/year. One can conceivably see this playing out according to three scenarios. Scenario 1 is simply “by the numbers”. The Housing section of Cambridge’s Alewife District Plan estimates one new student for every 17 new homes (see pg. 145), and the economic analysis of Arlington’s industrial districts gives a net increase of one new student for every 20 new condominiums (see slide 49). Both work out to an increase of 1–3 students per year for the addition of 14–54 homes. This is substantially smaller than past enrollment growth, and something the schools should easily be able to handle.

Second, one could imagine a scenario where elementary school enrollment is in modest decline, as students who entered Arlington public schools in the middle of the last decade move on to middle and high school. Here, new elementary students would utilize existing classroom space, which was created to accommodate students that came before them. It’s a scenario where enrollment stabilizes and doesn’t increase much.

Third, one could picture a scenario where any new home is immediately filled with children. Under this assumption it’s likely that any turnover of single-family homes or suitably-sized condominiums would attract families with children. With 7,998 single-family homes, there is little to prevent another demographic turnover from causing another increase in school enrollment, even if Arlington never adds a single additional home.

In summary, the effects on school enrollment are not easy to predict and several outcomes are possible. Ultimately, this will depend on Arlington’s attractiveness to young families, and our ability to retain these families once their students graduate from school.

Our Proposal to the Arlington Redevelopment Board

We propose that the Zoning Bylaw of the Town of Arlington be amended as
follows:

  • By adding the letter “Y” to the “Use Regulations for Residential Districts” table in Section 5.4.3, in the row labeled “Two family dwelling, duplex”, and under the columns labeled “R0” and “R1”;
  • By adding the letters “SP” to the “Use Regulations for Residential Districts” table in Section 5.4.3, in the row labeled “Six or more units in two-family dwellings or duplex dwelling on one or more contiguous lots”, and under the columns labeled “R0” and “R1”,
Class of Use R0 R1 R2
Two-family dwelling Y Y Y
Six or more units in two-family dwellings or duplex dwelling on one or more contiguous lots SP SP SP

and, by making the following changes to the definitions of the R0 and R1 districts in Section 5.4.1(A):

R0: Large Lot Single-FamilyResidential District. The Large Lot Single-FamilyResidential District has the lowest residential density of all districts and is generally served by local streets only. The Town discourages intensive land uses, uses that would detract from the single-family residential character of these neighborhoods, and uses that would otherwise interfere with the intent of this Bylaw.

R1: Single-FamilyR1 Residential District. The predominant uses in R1 are single- and two-family dwellings and public land and buildings. The Town discourages intensive land uses, uses that would detract from the single-family residential character of these neighborhoods, and uses that would otherwise interfere with the intent of this Bylaw.

Related Materials

Our Redevelopment Board Hearing

We presented Article 18 to the redevelopment board on Oct 26th. You can watch the presentation below.

The Redevelopment Board did their deliberations and voting two days later, on October 28th. Their report is available from the Town website.

At least three members of the board were supportive of the effort, but they ultimately voted to recommend this action. I attribute the no action vote to two factors. First, in January 2020 the Redevelopment board agreed to perform a public engagement campaign, to educate residents on housing issues facing the town, and to gather input on how those issues could be addressed. The public engagement effort hasn’t started yet (mainly due to the pandemic), and the board was hesitant to recommend favorable action without doing an outreach campaign first.

Second, the board was interested in attaching standards to single- to two-family conversions, and didn’t feel there was enough time in this town meeting cycle to devise an appropriate set of standards. They were interested in design requirements and collecting payments to an affordable housing trust fund. Standards are interesting idea, and worthy of further consideration. For my own taste, I’d be more inclined to ask for performance standards that tied in to Arlington’s Net Zero Action plan.

So, we are going to take the ARB’s feedback, work on the idea some more, and resubmit during a future town meeting.