Housing Developer Math

Dave Weinstock, an Arlington resident interested in affordable housing wondered about the concept of “developer math”. The math involved in planning an affordable housing projects is a problem that needs to get solved in order to have anything built here in Arlington, or anywhere. This topic comes up frequently in community discussions about the need for more housing.

Questions are raised around:

  • 1- Why build so many units vs. smaller buildings
  • 2- Why parking is costly and inefficient use of land
  • 3- Why can’t more affordable or all affordable units be built?
  • 4- The cost of subsidizing affordable units and how that may translate to higher rental rates/costs, etc.

Dave found a great Architecture and Development firm in Atlanta (Kronberg Urbanists + Architects, based in Atlanta GA) that lays out a nice presentation, includes sample proformas, and real life scenarios that may help us understand this piece of the puzzle better when evaluating any project and how developers may be incented to build certain types of projects or do certain types of work.

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The Color of Law on the old Allen Farm

Restrictive covenants are a “list of obligations that purchasers of property must assume … For the first half of the 20th century, one commonplace commitment was a promise never to sell or rent to an African American”. [1] These covenants gained popularity after the Supreme Court’s 1917 decision in Buchanan v. Warley.

Rothstein’s book The Color of Law mentions examples from Brookline, MA; Arlington, MA has examples of it’s own. We’ll look at one from an East Arlington deed dating to 1923. Credit to Christopher Sacca for finding these documents.

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Arlington 2020: Low Density Housing

I’ve had an annual ritual for the past several years: obtain a spreadsheet of property assessments from the Town Assessor, load them in to a database, and run a series of R computations against the data. I started doing this for a number of reasons: to understand what was built where (our zoning laws have changed over time, and there are numerous non-conforming uses), the relationship between land and building values, the capital costs of different types of housing, and how these factors have changed over time.

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Commercial Taxes and Residential Wealth

Two weeks ago, I helped to organize a precinct meeting for residents and town meeting members. During the meeting, we got into a discussion about public open spaces, how the town funds their upkeep, and whether having more commercial tax revenue might provide additional funding for parks and recreation.

As I discussed in an earlier post, only about 5.6% of Arlington’s is zoned for commercial uses, and that limits the amount of commercial property tax revenue we can generate. Commercial property tax revenue is sometimes referred to as “CIP”, which stands for “Commercial, Industrial, and Personal”. Commercial and Industrial refer to property taxes on land and buildings that are respectively used for commercial and industrial uses. Personal tax is tax on the value of equipment that’s owned and used by a business for the purpose of carrying out whatever their business is. This could include things like desks, display fixtures, cooking equipment, fork lifts, and the like.

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Zoning Maps as Budgets

In 2018, the planning department released a study of Demolitions and replacement homes. Page 4 contains a bar chart showing the relative sizes of Arlington’s zoning districts:

Total Acres of Land By Zone

The folks in Arlington’s Department of Planning and Community Development were kind enough to provide me with a copy of the underlying numeric data. I’ll present that shortly, but for the moment, I’d like to make a proposition about zoning maps: that they are budgets given in acres rather than dollars. A zoning map takes a finite pool of resources (land) and allocates it among specific set of concerns (land uses).

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63 Percent in Greater Boston Back Accessory Dwelling Units

from Banker & Tradesman, March 10, 2020: https://www.bankerandtradesman.com/63-percent-in-greater-boston-back-adus/ B&T produced a terrific report on the strong interest across the nation in allowing more ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) . This follows after California recently passed strong “YIMBY” legislation encouraging the developement of ADU’s.

“A new, nationwide survey from real estate website Zillow has found that nearly two-thirds of Boston-area residents want the ability to convert their single-family homes into multifamily units.

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Redlining and Urban Heat Islands

In the 1930’s the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation of America (HOLC) created actuarial maps of the United states. These maps were color coded — Green, Blue, Yellow, and Red — to reflect the amount of “risk” associated with home loans in those areas. The colors corresponded to “Best” (green), “Still Desirable” (blue), “Definitely Declining” (yellow), and “Hazardous” (red). Being in a green area made you likely to secure a federally-insured home mortgage, something that was effectively unavailable to red areas. Red areas were often associated with black populations, and these maps are where the term “redlining” comes from.

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Zoning for Accessory Dwelling Units

by Amy Dain, for Pioneer Institute of Public Policy Research and Smart Growth Alliance, July 2018 (This study updates a 2004-06 study on ADUs by the Pioneer Institute.)

Even in the midst of a housing crisis, zoning laws prohibit most homeowners in cities and towns around Boston from adding accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to their single family houses. An ADU is an apartment within or behind an own- er-occupied single family house that appears from the street to be a single-family as opposed to a two-family house.

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Accessory Dwelling Units: Policies, Attitudes in Boston Region

from Alexandra P. Levering , Thesis, Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University, August 2017

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 about 3. But by 2017, Lexington had 75 ADUs, Newton had 73 and Ipswich had 66. It is a slow process for a variety of reasons, but the number of units grows over time.

AARP recommends ADU’s. The help homeonwers cover rising housing costs by providing income trhough rent. They also create a space for a caretaker or a family member to live close by, as the homeowner ages.

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The Color of Law on Sunnyside Ave

I live on Sunnyside Avenue in Arlington, Massachusetts. The neighborhood was built as two subdivisions in 1948, with 42 duplexes (84 homes total). These were starter homes with 792 square feet of finished space plus a basement with a garage. I affectionately refer to them as excellent specimens of mid-century slap-up. They were constructed in the mid 20th century, and the builder just kind of slapped them up.

Here’s one of the original newspaper ads for these homes.

Sunnyide - a Community of Duplexes in Arlington! Priced from $8750!

It’s fun to read the ad copy. The homes are “within walking distance of schools, transportation (MTA) and shopping centers” (a selling point that endures to this day); the lots are “large to provide for individual landscaping” (they’re 3,000 square feet give or take, which is unbuildably small by today’s zoning laws); and the homes have “full-sized dining rooms”, “spacious streamlined kitchens”, and “two large sunny bedrooms” (so much largeness for 792 square feet). I guess this was a time when good salesmanship took precedence over truth in advertising. It was a different time.

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