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.

Transit Corridor Strategy for More Housing

from Karen Kelleher, Reporter

Interested in new policy developments on housing production in the Greater Boston area? The latest research from Mass Housing Partnership (MHP) is of interest.  They just released (Dec. 18, 2019) in interactive map showing relative housing density around every mass transit and commuter rail station in the system, concluding that the region could add 235,000 units if every community allowed density as of right in the area around transit.

CHAPA has legislation pending that would require municipalities served by transit to allow higher density as of right within a certain distance from transit stations. You’ll see that the density around Alewife is not too bad in the context of the entire system.

This is mostly because of very high density in Cambridge near Alewife, but the density of two and three families in East Arlington shows better housing density than the sea of single family zoning around many commuter rail stops.  
You can check it out here:https://www.mhp.net/news/2019/todex-research-brief

Minneapolis Zones for Diversity

Minneapolis is the most recent governmental entity to disrupt the almost 110 year old idea of local zoning in America by overriding single family zoning. Zoning was developed in the the early 1900’s to control property rights and, in part, to limit access to housing by race. These early laws were upheld by the courts in the 1930’s and the use of zoning to control private property for the interests of the majority became common. Houston Texas did not adopt zoning, an outlier in the nation.

But recently governments are rethinking zoning in light of evidence of exclusionary practices including racism and inadequate supplies of affordable housing. In July Oregon’s legislature voted to essentially ban single family zoning in the state.

Most recently, in the end of July, Minneapolis became the first city this century to remove single family zoning, allowing two family housing units to enter any single family zone as of right. According to the Bloomberg News article, the city took action to remedy the untenable price increases do to single family homes taking a disproportionate amount of city land and services. They hope a wider range of housing, and more housing, will reduce housing costs in the future.

Read the full story from Bloomberg News.

10 Great Illegal Neighborhoods

This report shows a number of great, livable neighborhoods in communities like Lexington, Cohasset, Great Barrington, etc. where under the municipality’s “official” zoning, the neighborhoods would be illegal and could not exist. These are neighborhoods that residents enjoy for a variety of special characteristics that would have been blocked in typical zoning. Zoning can result in a too homogeneous community, excluding the serendipities of co-location in a land use development process evolving over a great many years. Can we anticipate these synergies and include them to enrichen our town’s neighborhoods?

This Mass Housing Partnership report shows a number of characteristics that make these selected neighborhoods very desirable.

The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston

(published June, 2019)

Overview

To solve the extraordinarily large deficit in housing for the greater Boston region, over 180,000 units of new housing should come on line in the next few years. This deficit is the result of a rapid expansion in in-migration due to new job creation, with no commensurate increase in housing production for the people taking those new jobs.

The report concludes that zoning is a primary culprit in restricting the development of an adequate housing supply, creating a “PAPER WALL” keeping out newcomers. The cost of this inadequate supply is a huge demand for housing which, in turn, bids up the price for available housing. The following “culprits” are considered: inadequate land area zoned for multi-family housing; low density zoning; age restrictions and bedroom restrictions; excessive parking requirements; mixed use requirements and approval processes. Alternative zoning models are suggested.

Elements such as “Approval Process”, “Mixed Use”, “Village Centers vs Isolated Parcels” and “Building Up or Building Out” are considered.

Researcher Amy Dain reports on two years of research into the regulations, plans and permits in the 100 cities and towns surrounding Boston. The research was commissioned by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and funded collaboratively with: Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Association of Realtors, Massachusetts Housing Partnership, MassHousing, and Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

For the full report see: https://ma-smartgrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/03/FINAL_Multi-Family_Housing_Report.pdf

For a power point slide presentation see: https://ma-smartgrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/04/DainZoningMFPresentationShare2019.pdf

For the Executive Summary see: https://equitable-arlington.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/June-2019-Multi-Family-Housing-Report_Executive-Summary.pdf