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.

Here’s an HOLC map of Arlington, courtesy of the University of Richmond’s mapping inequality project.

"Redline" map of Arlington, MA, courtesty of the Home Owner's Loan Corporation
HOLC “redline” map of Arlington, Massachusetts

Note that Arlington does not have any “Hazardous” (red) areas; 68% of the town fell into the top two grades, meaning that we were generally a safe bet as far as federal mortgage insurers were concerned. To the extent that the HOLC preferred white communities, Arlington seems to have fit the bill. According to US census data.

  • 1930: population 36,094. No breakdown by race.
  • 1940: population 40,013. 99.8% white.
  • 1950: population 44,353. No breakdown by race.
  • 1960: population 49,953. 99.7% white.
  • 1970: population 53,524. 99.0% white.
  • 1980: population 48,219. 97.3% white.

Today, Arlington is about 84% white. But during the time that mortgage approvals were based on the HOLC maps — the mid 1930’s through the mid 1960’s — we certainly qualified as an overwhelmingly (> 99%) white community.

Arlington had four yellow-lined (“definitely declining”) areas; about 32% of the town. C1 (on the western edge of town) was noted for an “infiltration of Jews”, a “heavy concentration of relief families”, and hilly terrain which was “not conducive to good development”. But it had good schools and a nice area along Appleton St. C2 (along Mass Ave and Mill Brook) was noted for “obsolescence” with “business and housing mixed together” and “railroad tracks through [the] neighborhood”. There was an infiltration of lower-class people, a moderate number of relief families, and “little possibility of conversion of properties to business use”.

C3 (East Arlington, around the present location Thompson School and Menotomy Manor) was noted for “Obsolescence, poor reputations” and “foreign concentration”. There was an “infiltration of foreign [residents]” and a “heavy concentration of relief families”. On the positive side, there were “a few small farms in this section of high grade development of the ground [which] may be anticipated in the early future with modest houses”.

Finally, C4 (around Spy Pond, and near the Alewife T station) was “obsolescent”, with an infiltration of foreign families, and a moderately heavy concentration of relief families. The HOLC noted that “Houses East of Varnum Street [and] south of Herbert Road are built on low ground and many have damp basements which makes them difficult to keep occupied”.

That’s what the HOLC saw as the declining side of Arlington: Jews, foreigners (mostly Italian), relief families, obsolescence, damp basements, and proximity to the Boston-Maine railroad.

Exercise for the reader. Arlington has five public housing projects: Drake Village, Winslow Towers, Chestnut Manor, Cusack Terrace, and Menotomy Manor. What HOLC colors are associated with our public housing?

Buildings last for decades, and effects of the HOLC’s underwriting policies are still with us today — sometimes in unexpected ways. A 2020 paper called “The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat: A Study of 108 US Urban Areas” examined 108 communities, and tried to determine if there was a relationship between redlined areas and urban heat islands. Nationwide, this is what they found:

Land surface temperature as a function of HOLC risk category
Land Surface Temperature, by HOLC risk rating

LST stands for “land surface temperature” and shows how different HOLC risk categories compare to the overall temperature of a region. Green areas tend to be cooler, with less paved surface, more extensive tree canopies, and buildings with reflective exteriors. Red areas are warmer with more paved surfaces, less tree canopy, and building exteriors that absorb and release heat (e.g., brick and cinderblocks). While the degree varies across different parts of the country, the general trend is the same: as one goes from green to red, the surface temperature goes up. Formerly-redlined areas are far more likely to contain heat islands.

Exercise for the reader. Are there heat islands in Arlington? What (HOLC) color are they?

As the global temperature warms, Arlington (like many other communities) will have to contend with heat islands. The treatment is likely to be area-specific, following patterns laid out in the HOLC’s maps from the early-20th century.

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.

Homeowner-voters can be reassured that new rental hous- ing that could be added as ADUs would be highly dispersed and barely visible. The houses are owner-occupied; the land- lord lives next to the ADU renters, so the risk of property-ne- glect or loud parties is minimal. The houses also have to look like single family houses. Since household sizes are shrinking, new residents in ADUs might maintain current neighborhood population densities, but are unlikely to increase them.

Moreover, ADUs are permitted at such low levels now — only 2.5 permits annually per municipality where they are allowed — that permitting levels could increase substantially without being at all noticeable in neighborhoods. If the region were to average five permits per municipality per year across 100 municipalities, over a decade, ADUs could provide 5,000 apartments, dispersed among 538,000 single family houses. Less than one in 100 houses would have an ADU, yet the new rentals would house thousands of people.

Click HERE for the full report.

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.

Autism Housing Pathways and Advocates for Autism of MA (AFAM) came together to advocate for an ADU bylaw to benefit parents of adult children with disabilities. For more information see her complete thesis (with a very useful set of tables and bibliography) HERE.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) provide multigenerational housing options for aging parents and for adult children. They help families manage changing lifestyle, fiscal and/or caretaking situations.

This type of housing is seen by many as a clear opportunity to offer more affordable residential opportunities. One reason why they are slow to develop is the cost of renovation and construction for homeowners. Some communities offer low or no interest loans to encourage more ADU development.

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.

I have to admit, they were a pretty good deal. $8750 in 1948 is equivalent to around $95,000 in 2020 dollars; these homes, with the original floor plan, currently sell for around half a million dollars.

However, the part of the ad that most caught my attention was “All Mortgages FHA 25 years”. FHA refers to the Federal Housing Administration, who were the primary mortgage underwriters during the middle of the 20th century. They’re also an example of how the United States used housing policy as a tool for segregation; the FHA was in the business of insuring mortgages for white families in white neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston has a short summary of FHA practices. There’s also discussion of the FHA in Segregated by Design.

Which is to say, my nice little neighborhood in East Arlington was likely designed, built, and sold as a segregated development for whites.

Arlington’s biggest period of residential construction was in the 1920’s when we were building an average of 500 homes/year. But there was still a good deal of single- and two-family construction that took place from the 1930’s to the 1960’s — a bit over 5,000 homes. Since the FHA was the primary mortgage underwriter during that period, I think it’s safe to say that my neighborhood was probably not the only for-whites-only neighborhood in town.

I will end with two questions. How do we feel about this bit of history, and what (if anything) should we do about it?

Myths & Facts About Affordable Housing & Density

This timely report on the question of affordable housing vs. density comes from the California Dept. of Housing & Community Development and mirrors the situation in the region surrounding Arlington MA.

Housing production has not kept up with job and household growth.   The location and type of new housing does not meet the needs of many new house- holds. As a result, only one in five households can afford a typical home, overcrowding doubled in the 1990’s, and too many households pay more than they can afford for their housing.

Myth #1
High-density housing is affordable housing; affordable
housing is high-density housing.
Fact #1
Not all high density housing is affordable to low-income families.

Myth #2
High-density and affordable housing will cause too much traffic.
Fact #2
People who live in affordable housing own fewer cars and
drive less.

Myth #3
High-density development strains public services and
infrastructure.
Fact #3
Compact development offers greater efficiency in use of
public services and infrastructure.

Myth #4
People who live in high-density and affordable housing
won’t fit into my neighborhood.
Fact #4
People who need affordable housing already live and work
in your community.

Myth #5
Affordable housing reduces property values.
Fact #5
No study in California has ever shown that affordable
housing developments reduce property values.

Myth #6
Residents of affordable housing move too often to be stable
community members.
Fact #6
When rents are guaranteed to remain stable, tenants
move less often.

Myth #7
High-density and affordable housing undermine community
character.
Fact #7
New affordable and high-density housing can always be
designed to fit into existing communities.

Myth #8
High-density and affordable housing increase crime.
Fact #8
The design and use of public spaces has a far more
significant affect on crime than density or income levels.

See an example of a “case study” of two affordable housing developments in Irvine CA, San Marcos at 64 units per acre.

Affordable housing: San Marcos Apartments, Irvine CA, 64 units/ acre

San Paulo at 25 units per acre.

Affordable housing at San Paulo apartments, Irvine CA, 25 units/ acre.

Both are designed to blend with nearby homes.

Towns Join for Regional Approach to Affordable Housing

Interview with Aaron Clausen, AICP; City of Beverly, Director, Planning and Community Development

Rather than express generalized worry about the “lack of affordable housing”, Peabody, Salem and Beverly have created an intermunicipal Memorandum of Mnderstanding (MOU) to very specifically define and target the problem and the population they want to address.

According to Aaron Clausen, “There is a fair amount of context that goes along with the MOU, but primarily the communities got together as sort of a coalition to survey and understand what was going on relative to homelessness. What came out of that is a recognition that there is not enough affordable housing generally, and particularly transitional housing, or more specifically permanent supportive housing.

“Salem and Beverly both have shelters, however the shelters were basically serving as permanent housing (and running out of space). That won’t help someone into a stable housing situation. Anyway, this was the agreement (attached MOU) and the good news is that it has resulted in affordable housing projects; one is done in Salem for individuals and Beverly has a 75 unit family housing project permitted and seeking funding that has a set aside for families either homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.

“There is also a redevelopment of a YMCA in downtown Beverly that will increase the number of Single Room Occupancy units. I wouldn’t say that the MOU got it done by itself but it helps demonstrate a regional approach. ”

To see the actual Memorandum of Understanding between these three municipalities to address affordable housing, particularly for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, click HERE.

The Gentrification of Arlington

(Comments presented to the Arlington Redevelopment Board and Select Board during a public hearing on Jan 13, 2020)

Steve Revilak, 111 Sunnyside Ave. In the interest of disclosure, I live in market rate housing that was built by a developer. Among Arlington residents, I’m not unusual in that regard.

At the end of December, a friend sent me an article that appeared on Redfin’s blog, which ranked the most competitive real estate markets in 2019. Out of 20 listings, three were neighborhoods in Arlington: East Arlington at #3, the Brattle Street Area at #5, and Arlington Center at #12. This is only one data point, but Redfin is a national realtor and works in markets all across the country. Arlington is a desirable place to live.

Housing costs have steadily increased over the last 20 years, modulo a brief reset during the economic recession of 2008. For example, the prior owner of my house purchased it for $151,000 is 1999. I purchased it for $359,000 in 2007 (when it was assessed at $287k). Today, it’s assessed at $501k, which is consistent with similar home sales from 2018.

The net effect: each year a new family moves to town, they have to have a more money (or be willing to spend more on housing) than a family who moved in the year before. With that in mind, I’d like to cite a few figures from the 2019 Town Survey:

  • Question 37: Indicate the number of years lived in Arlington. 59% of respondents indicated 15 years or less. Nearly 30% indicated five years or less. Despite the prices, people still move here.
  • Question 40: What was your annual household income in 2018. The most common response was “more than $200,000”, with over 28% answering that way. Nearly 71% of respondents indicated earning $100,000/year or more. Arlington’s median income is likely higher than HUD’s AMI for the Metro Boston area.
  • Question 41: What is the highest level of educated completed by a member of your household. Over 73% indicated having a masters degree or higher.

I don’t mean to knock people who’ve lived here 15 or fewer years, have advanced degrees, or have household earnings of $200,000 or more per year. I check every single one of those boxes myself. But I do want to point out that we are a highly educated and affluent community. Put another way, we have a population that matches the cost of our housing.

Twenty years of gentrification haven’t killed us: we’ve expanded town staff and services, we’re renovating public buildings, and we’re getting a new high school. Those are all good things, made possible because residents have the money to pay for them, and have been willing to do so.

We can absolutely keep the status quo we’ve had, but I want to recognize that the combination of the housing market and Arlington’s policies have created an economic barrier to living here. I see two issues: one is affordability, and the other is an imbalance between supply and demand.

There are a variety of things we could do, and I think we should consider all of them. I don’t see a viable way to relieve housing pressure that doesn’t involve more housing. And that’s what I hope we can do over the coming years: find ways to build more housing.

Improving Residential Inclusiveness, Sustainability, and Affordability by Ending Single-Family Zoning

(Contributed by Ben Rudick and Steve Revilak)

We should end exclusionary Single Family Zoning in Arlington. This is inspired by Minneapolis which ended Single Family Zoning city-wide last year, as Oregon did. To be clear, we’re not suggesting an end to single family homes, only to exclusionary Single Family Zoning; you can still have a single-family house, but now you’d have the option to build a two-family or duplex instead.

79% of all residential land in Arlington is zoned exclusively for single family homes (in the R0 and R1 districts), meaning the only legal use of that land is for a single home built upon a large lot (source: Arlington GIS via the Department of Planning and Community Development). This is a problem for three key reasons:

  1. Single Family Zoning has a deeply racist past. It came into being after a 1917 Supreme Court ruling made it illegal to have “Whites only” neighborhoods. Instead, towns and cities, as encouraged by the federal government, enacted zoning that used economics instead of explicit racism to segregate neighborhoods. A popular strategy was to require large lots on which only expensive, individual homes could be built. Here’s an excellent short video on the topic: https://www.segregatedbydesign.com/
  2. It’s terrible for the environment. Living in a Single Family Home is akin to driving alone instead of carpooling or taking the bus: it’s the most carbon-intensive way to put a roof over your head. The more people you can house in the same structure, the less energy you spend per person. By spreading people out, we’re increasing the amount we drive and the carbon we emit. And we’re contributing to traffic congestion too.
  3. Arlington is becoming increasingly unaffordable. We have a massive (and growing) housing shortage; combined with continued job growth in the Greater Boston area, housing has gotten dramatically more expensive over the last 20 years. The only way for us to keep rising home prices in check is to significantly increase supply, which will be extremely difficult to do while keeping so much of our land reserved for single family homes.

If you’d like to support us, please share this post and join our Facebook group, Arlington Neighbors for More Neighbors, where we’ll post updates and hearing times for the warrant article we’ve submitted to effect this change.

Consider the Schools: Add More Housing

Jennifer Susse authored this letter on January 20, 2020. Ms. Susse is a member of the Arlington School Committee and a Town Meeting Member. She closely follows the costs and demographic trends of school enrollment and of Town finances.

I write in support of efforts to increase housing in Arlington, both as a resident and as a member of the School Committee. I support these efforts not in spite of their potential effects on our schools, but because of their potential effects on both schools and town.

I have often spoken to the community about our rapid enrollment growth — over 2,000 students added in the last 25 years, 60 percent of those in the last 10 years. Because of these large enrollment increases the Arlington Public Schools have had to add capacity, which the town has generously supported. So how can I be in favor of adding more housing to Arlington, and thus potentially adding even more students to our already stressed school facilities?

Losing diversity
I will get to the capacity issue in a bit, but first I want to point out that in the last 30 years Arlington has lost both economic and generational diversity. The story about the loss of economic diversity is well known; the loss of generational diversity less so.

Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of residents between 20 and 34 dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent. During that same period, the population over 65 dropped from 18 percent to 16 percent. What replaced these demographic groups were primarily residents between the ages of 35 and 54 and 0 and 14. In other words, mostly families with school-aged children. The loss of both types of diversity weakens the fabric of our community. However, the loss of generational diversity also weakens the town’s finances.

The average cost to the town of an additional student is about $8,500, a number that includes what’s known as the Enrollment Growth Factor (the amount that the town gives to the schools for each additional student in the system, currently at 50 percent of the per pupil cost of the preceding year, or $7,297), as well as the average cost of the benefits that the town pays for new hires.

What this means is that during the time a household has children in the school system, it is likely receiving more in benefits than it pays in taxes. For the town’s finances to work, we also need people who do not have children to live and pay taxes in Arlington, including young adults and older adults for whom Arlington is becoming less affordable because of condo conversions, teardowns, etc.

Overcrowded classrooms
But what about our overcrowded classrooms? The answer is that given the type of housing likely to be created on the main corridors, and the timing of that housing construction, I am not worried about further stresses to our school facilities.

By the time new housing is built, our elementary-aged population will likely be in modest decline. Five to 10 years out we expect to see enrollment stabilize at the middle and high school levels as well. That does not mean that we will have tons of extra space; just that we will no longer be in danger of taking over art, music, and literacy rooms for general classroom use.

Enrollment projections made by Dr. Jerome McKibbin in 2015 have so far been fairly accurate. His revised projections show that, without additional housing, we are expected to have 350 fewer elementary-aged students in the Arlington Public Schools 12 years from now than we have today.

The discussion about housing in Arlington reminds me of the discussion a few years ago over the Affordable Care Act. At that time, there was a lot of anxiety about potential changes to the health-care system, but insufficient appreciation (in my opinion) of the then current trends.

Zoning changes
Any discussion of zoning changes in Arlington must take an honest look at where we are now, and the direction we are headed in if there were no zoning changes. Our current trends have us losing natural affordability and economic and demographic diversity because of teardowns, condo conversions and sharp price increases. We don’t have the option to freeze Arlington as we know it today (or 10 years ago) in place.

In closing, I would like to say that I am proud of our excellent schools and strongly believe that families who have recently moved to Arlington have strengthened our community, but I do not want Arlington to become a place where people move in with toddlers and move out soon as their children graduate from high school. The current trends have us losing both economic and generational diversity, which threatens not only our community and civic life, but our financial health as well. Adding more and diverse housing can help.

“Surging Seas” Risk Zone Map Shows Arlington Wetlands Threat

Climate Central’s Surging Seas global Risk Zone Map provides the ability to explore inundation ​risk ​up to 30 meters across the world’s coastlines as well as local sea level rise projections at over 1,000 tide gauges on 6 continents.

Set the map for Boston MA and focus in on the Arlington area to see how the town would be affected by rising sea levels, as predicted over the next few decades.

Map areas below the selected water level are displayed as satellite imagery shaded in blue indicating vulnerability to flooding from combined sea level rise, storm surge, and tides, or to permanent submergence by long-term sea level rise. Map areas above the selected water level are shown in map style using white and pale grays. The map is searchable by city, state, postal code, and other location names. The map is embeddable, and users can customize and download map screenshots using the camera icon in the top right of the screen.

For map areas in the U.S., the Risk Zone map incorporates the latest, high-resolution, high-accuracy lidar elevation data supplied by NOAA, displays points of interest, and contains layers displaying social vulnerability and population density. For map areas outside the U.S. the map utilizes elevation data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).

Arlington wetlands on interactive map set to show future 8 foot water rise.

https://ss2.climatecentral.org/?#13/42.4074/-71.1100?show=satellite&projections=0-K14_RCP85-SLR&level=8&unit=feet&pois=hide