History of Zoning


State legislature passes Tenement Housing Act, allowing towns to limit the development of apartments.


Supreme Court case Buchanan v. Warley rules that racial zoning ordinances were unconstitutional, not because they were discriminatory, but because they interfered with the property owner’s right to sell to whomever they chose. This prompted towns all over the country to seek clever ways around this ruling. One of those ways was to introduce single-family zoning, another was restrictive covenants on deeds.


200-unit Allen Park development in East Arlington (around current Hardy School) includes “No sale or lease of any said lots shall be made to colored people, nor any dwelling on any said lots be sold or occupied by colored people” on the development plans and in the property deeds.


Arlington adopts its first zoning bylaw and map that includes a “Single Residence District.”


Supreme Court case Euclid v. Ambler ruled that zoning is constitutional, finding that use districts are within a state’s power to protect the public welfare. The case also upheld a municipality’s ability to regulate the location of multi-family construction, saying “very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district” and that said apartment houses “come very near to being nuisances” when they are in single-family districts.


The Housing Act of 1934 creates Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the thirty-year mortgage. The HOLC created the infamous “redlining” maps, with a stated interest in helping lenders avoid borrowers and neighborhoods with a higher risk of default.


Arlington zoning map. Note the fairly consistent and uniform Business and Industrial Districts.


Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer found that racially restrictive covenants could not be legally enforced because they violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite this, the FHA continued to insure developments with racially explicit covenants for years afterward. Also, the Shelley ruling applied to government enforcement, it did not actually ban racially restrictive covenants, just the government’s participation in enforcing them.



Population: 44,353

Housing units: 12,318



Population: 49,953 (+12%)

Housing units: 15,060 (+22%)


Save Arlington Association founded, whose principle mission was to oppose spot re-zoning requests that would allow the construction of multi-family housing in single or two-family zoning areas. These re-zoning requests were not for town-wide rezoning, but generally parcel-specific. These multi-family projects were mostly the brick “pillbox” style project we see dotting Massachusetts Avenue and Broadway. They are now some of the most affordable apartments in Arlington. Opponents of these developments cited such potential ills such as traffic jams, school overpopulation, loss of open space, and rising property taxes.


Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) is passed, prohibiting discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex. Prior to this it was assumed to be legal for homeowners to refuse to sell homes to black families or for banks to deny loans to black potential home buyers or for brokers to steer black families away from some neighbors and towns. However, the FHA had a basic enforcement problem, since it required the victims of discrimination to file a formal complaint with HUD or sue in federal court.


Massachusetts enacts Comprehensive Permit Law, commonly known as 40B, to help address the shortage of affordable housing statewide by reducing unnecessary barriers created by local approval processes, local zoning, and other restrictions.



Population: 53,524 (+7%)
Housing units: 17,921 (+19%)


President Nixon declares a moratorium on federal housing efforts, largely ending the construction of new public housing and moving the federal government’s housing efforts toward block grants and vouchers. Those vouchers are commonly known as Section 8.


Federal appeal court rules that racially restrictive covenants violate the Fair Housing Act and that the recording of deeds with such clauses violated the Fourteenth Amendment.


NAACP filed a class-action lawsuit that became Morgan v. Hennigan against the Boston School Committee regarding school segregation.

April 1973

Moratorium on apartment building construction in Arlington passes Town Meeting 154-17.

June 1974

Supreme Court Case Morgan v. Hennigan finding in favor of the plaintiff that the Boston School Committee had indeed implemented de facto segregation and that redistricting and busing would be the court’s primary tools to reduce said segregation. This would kick off a decade of protests and violence in Boston against de-segregation.

June 1975

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upholds Arlington’s moratorium on multi-family housing – as long as it is a temporary ban.

October 1975

6,000 people marched against school busing in South Boston.


Town Meeting passes a new master plan, zoning map, and zoning bylaw, creating a Special Permit process for anything 3-family or greater. The zoning map typically re-defined acceptable use based on what was already on a lot. Many existing apartment and multi-use buildings were put into zones that were just a little more restrictive than the existing use, making them “non-conforming”. Business and Industrial districts were re-zoned by parcel.


Arlington opposes Red Line extension.


Town Meeting down-zones R7 district, lowering maximum height from 110 to 60 feet and maximum stories from 12 to 5.



Population: 48,219 (-10%)
Housing units: 18,880 (+5%)


Cusack Terrace, Arlington Housing Authority’s newest property, is constructed.


Arlington commissioned a study titled Overview of Affordable Housing: Challenges and Opportunities. It noted many of the same issues we are having today: demand outstripping supply, rapidly rising home prices creating a cost burden for new homeowners, and insufficient housing choice. The report mentioned a number of possible measures to be taken including Accessory Dwelling Units, small modest housing units, smaller units and manufactured homes and home-sharing. No action appears to have been taken based on this report.



Population: 44,630 (-7%)
Housing units: 19,421 (+3%)


Town Meeting establishes R0 districts. Minimum size: 9,000 square feet (up from 6,000 sf in R1, R2) Minimum frontage: 75 feet (up from 60 in R1, R2)


Ballot Question 9, Massachusetts Rent Control Prohibition Initiative, prohibiting rent control for most privately owned housing units, passes 51.3% to 48.7%



Population: 42,389 (-5%)
Housing units: 19,411 (0%)


“Oldsmobile” site (Mass. Ave and Mill Street) After rejecting a proposal for a chain drug store, a redevelopment of 46 units, 7 of which would have been Affordable, was also proposed. After community opposition and revisions, 18 units (9 two-family houses) are built. None are Affordable.


Symmes Advisory Committee Recommendations to Special Town Meeting recommends that the town pursue a strategy of redeveloping the site “at the lowest intensity that can accomplish, insofar as possible, the various goals, preferences and desires stated herein, including adherence to fiscal constraints.”



Population: 42,844 (+1%)
Housing units: 19,974 (+2.9%)


Ballot question on 40B repeal.

Arlington voted:

Repeal: 6,804 (36%)

Don’t Repeal: 12,031 (64%)


Accessory Dwelling Unit article gets majority support in Town Meeting, but falls short of the then required supermajority.


Town Meeting votes 221-0-13 to establish the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.



Population: 46,308 (+8%)
Housing units: 20,012 (+0.19%)


State passes Economic Development Bill to encourage the development of multi-family housing in areas near public transit. This will lead to the MBTA Communities changes in 2023.


Town Meeting votes 189-48 to allow by-right Accessory Dwelling Units in Arlington.


Town Meeting votes 187-50 to approve a home-rule petition to allow the town to levy a transfer tax on real estate transactions.


Town Meeting votes 189-35 to approve zoning changes in response to the MBTA Communities Law.