Multi-family Housing By Right

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


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

  • 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

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.

Design Ideas for Transit Corridors-Pike/Pine District

Seattle finds new tools to preserve neighborhood character in the Pike / Pine Corridor of the city. Arlington has its own neighborhood districts that are now being re-thought with new planning for the neighborhoods’ future. These include the Broadway Corridor, the Mass Ave. Transit Corridor and Arlington Heights.

The tools here include samples for what Arlington might do, “overlay District”, Transfer of Development Potential (TDP).  A TDP provides incentives

for property owners to keep existing “character structures” rather than tear them down. A Conservation Core was also established within the district to further ensure that new development is more compatible with the special scale and character of existing development in this area. They also prepared Design Guidelines, Zoning Ordinance, Environmental Review Checklist, Cultural Overlay District, “Center Village” Plan, Inventory of Historic Resources, etc.