How do we achieve an equitable Arlington?
We have the opportunity to create a diverse and vibrant future, by allowing housing that matches the needs of people in a variety of life stages and economic situations.
Increased supply of homes, especially missing middle housing, will have a stabilizing effect on both rental and sale prices, which would be good news for households looking for market rate housing in Arlington. New multi-family development also triggers our inclusionary zoning bylaw, generating income-restricted affordable housing.
The Affordable Housing Trust Fund and partnerships with existing stakeholders like the Housing Corporation of Arlington and the Arlington Housing Authority provide additional opportunities to build affordable housing for low and moderate income households.
How do we achieve a sustainable Arlington?
There is a rich body of scientific literature showing that compact, walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented development is environmentally beneficial—not only because it helps preserve open land, but because it uses existing infrastructure (i.e. water and sewer) and is closer to jobs and transit. A new building with multiple households and ground-floor commercial space is a net carbon saver.
What happens if we do nothing?
Under our current zoning bylaw a sizeable portion of town is limited to single-family detached homes, so the most appealing thing for a developer to build on these lots is a large single family home (i.e. McMansion). Without zoning changes, we are likely to see this McMansion trend continue and see Arlington continue to lose both economic and generational diversity.
Additionally, much of the land around our transit corridors is not zoned to allow the walkable, multi-family, mixed-income housing that is essential to vital commercial centers. Without additional housing, there are fewer workers and customers living within walking distance of our businesses and restaurants.
Why are housing prices going up so fast?
There are many reasons that housing prices are rising so quickly. Demand for housing is increasing. Millennials, the largest generation, are in their prime home-buying years. At the same time, baby boomers are living longer and staying in their homes longer.
Meanwhile, Boston is booming. From 2010 to 2017, the Metropolitan Boston region added 245,000 new jobs, a 14 percent increase. Over the same period, only 71,600 housing units were permitted, a 5.2 percent increase. Increased competition for housing leads to low rental vacancy rates and low for-sale inventory. If you’ve tried to buy or rent a home in Arlington recently, you are probably familiar with bidding wars and escalating prices.
At the same time, supply is limited. It is hard to build more housing in this region. In Arlington, there is not a lot of buildable land for new construction. Our zoning restricts multi-family housing to a very small percent of our buildable land and requires that it go through an expensive Special Permit process. Consequently, most of our new construction is single unit housing, with large houses replacing smaller homes. The result is that demand far outstrips supply, resulting in bidding wars. This problem exists in much of the Boston area.
What effect will more housing have on taxes?
The more housing that is built, the more taxable property there is, and the lower everyone’s tax rate can be. Studies show that targeted change to allow for diverse forms of traditional housing and multifamily housing generates more property revenue per acre than single-family homes. It is highly likely that such development would be a net fiscal positive for Arlington. A recent article showed that new apartments in Trumbull, CT contributed more taxes to the municipal coffers than they used - in other words, they were a net benefit to the town.
Will these changes lead to overcrowding in our schools?
No. First, Arlington voters generously voted to add 11 elementary classroom spaces over the last few years. Second, enrollment numbers at the elementary schools have been going down. At its height in 2019 there were 3177 elementary school students in our buildings compared to 2963 in 2021, a drop of 7%. All the projections have had our elementary school population stabilizing around 2019 and then going into modest decline over the next 5 years.
Additionally, studies have shown that new housing, even multifamily housing, does not lead to significant increases in the number of schoolchildren. In fact, multifamily housing brings fewer kids than detached single-family housing - just .06 students/unit, or 1/15th of the students/unit in one-family housing.
As we diversify our housing stock, we can look forward to integrated schools, which have tremendous benefits for all kids, and avoid the unequal outcomes caused in part by exclusionary zoning.
What is the impact of zoning reform on gentrification?
Gentrification refers to displacing people from their homes due to market changes that increase housing costs. Drastic price increases mean that people who may be renting in Arlington, or those who could formerly afford to buy in Arlington, including those who grew up here, are priced out, and forced to move elsewhere. More housing supply will stabilize or lower housing costs and could alleviate pressure in other areas of Greater Boston facing gentrification.
How can we help today’s Arlington residents afford to stay here while also welcoming new residents?
Creating many types of new housing will strengthen our community. Building multi-family housing can support seniors looking to downsize and age in their community, and young people starting out on their own. And for homeowners, Arlington’s recent passage of an Accessory Dwelling Unit bylaw provides options to help them stay in their homes, while also providing rental housing for small households. Research from the Yale Law Clinic has shown such proposals can help to keep people in their homes.
Zoning reform also seeks to improve options for people who have not always felt welcome in suburban communities, and suffered the most from the effects of discrimination. It is important to acknowledge historical reasons that communities face or fear displacement. Decades of discriminatory practices - along with federal and state actions - have excluded residents of color from becoming homeowners, and offered inequitable housing options in only a few concentrated areas. Zoning reform is only one piece of the puzzle, but it is a critical first step.
What impact will zoning reform have on open space?
Using already-developed land for more housing, instead of adding new sprawling suburban development, is one of the best ways to preserve trees and open space. Building in already-developed areas minimizes the amount of land that needs to be cleared and paved because no new streets, sidewalks, sewers, water lines, and stormwater systems have to be built. They are all there. Zoning reform in Arlington will enable more housing in existing residential areas, reduce sprawl, and greatly reduce the current, well-documented destruction of natural landscapes.
What is “Affordable Housing”?
Affordable Housing usually means housing that is affordable to low-income households with income at or below 80% of area median income (in the greater Boston area). “Affordable” means paying no more than 30% of your income for housing related costs, (rent and utilities, or mortgage and taxes). These guidelines originate with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
How do we build more Affordable Housing in Arlington?
We must continue to support the Housing Corporation of Arlington, a non-profit that develops affordable housing in Arlington. The HCA does great work, and has a long history building and maintaining Affordable Housing (with a capital “A”). Their recently completed Downing Square Broadway Initiative added 48 units to Arlington’s affordable housing inventory, leveraging over $1 million in Town Community Preservation Act and Community Development Block Grant funding. They own and operate 150 affordable rental units in Arlington.
The Arlington Housing Authority operates almost 700 units of affordable housing for seniors and families, in addition administering voucher programs, but has not added any units recently.
The newly established Affordable Housing Trust Fund also presents an exciting opportunity. It is critically important that we allocate money and energy into fully utilizing this excellent new tool to build more income-restricted affordable housing in Arlington.
Additionally, building more market-rate multi-family housing produces some long-term affordable units because Arlington’s zoning bylaw includes inclusionary zoning requirements (Section 8.2). Any development of more than 6 units is required to designate 15% of the units as income-restricted affordable housing. Arlington currently has 55 units of permanently affordable housing generated through inclusionary zoning, with another 5 units coming in progress.
Should we only build Affordable Housing?
Affordable Housing with income and price restrictions is vitally important, but serves only a fraction of households. Housing is also needed for middle income households, which is not being built in the greater Boston area. Adding to the supply regionally is our only hope of stabilizing prices for everyone, including our teachers and other Town employees. Each community can and should do its part to help alleviate the housing shortage in the Boston area.
We have the opportunity to create the diverse and vibrant future that we envision for ourselves, by allowing housing that matches the needs of people at a variety of life stages and in a variety of economic situations. Help us seize the opportunity.