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Arlington is facing a housing crisis: Experts, residents explain their views

Home_prices_skyrocket. / Katie Mogg graphicKatie Mogg graphic

When Annie LaCourt moved to Arlington over three decades ago, she was excited to raise her children in a diverse socioeconomic environment with exposure to a wide variety of role models. Whether they became teachers, artists, plumbers, electricians or bakers, LaCourt’s children knew they weren’t limited in their paths to success.

Now, LaCourt fears Arlington no longer provides the flexibility it once did. Because of an ongoing housing crisis, LaCourt said Arlington has become a community where only the wealthy can thrive. 

“My house is worth a ridiculous amount of money, and I couldn't buy my house again [today],” said LaCourt, a housing activist and former member of Arlington’s Select Board. “We've become a community where only a well-to-do, upper-middle class professional can afford to buy a house. And that was not the case when I moved here.” 

She is the chief proponent of Article 38, aiming to expand allowable residential uses in the R0 (large-lot, single-family district) and R1 (single-family district), with the goal of diversifying the housing stock.

Arlington is an extremely desirable place to live. The price [of housing] is high because it's a very limited inventory, and the less you have of something, the more precious it is . . . It is challenging to find affordable places to live . . . .”
                                                                                                                                                               -- Jenny Raitt, town planning director

Town is part of a larger picture

Arlington is not the only town battling unaffordable and inaccessible housing. Rather, it is just one community indicative of a larger, flawed housing market that affects towns across the greater Boston metropolitan area and the northeastern region of the United States. Housing experts and Arlington residents alike said access to affordable housing needs to be increased to accommodate the needs of town residents, and prospective renters or homeowners. 

Jenny Raitt, director of Arlington’s department of planning and community development, defined affordable housing as units that cost less than 30 percent of a household's total income. Unaffordable price tags on homes in such towns as Arlington can be explained by a high demand for housing with a low supply of units. 

“Arlington is an extremely desirable place to live,” Raitt said. “The price [of housing] is high because it's a very limited inventory, and the less you have of something, the more precious it is . . . It is challenging to find affordable places to live, because there are not a lot of opportunities. There's simply not a lot on the market for people at different price points.”

Raitt explained that the demand to live in such suburbs as Arlington continues to increase because they provide desirable transit options, high-quality public education and access to employment opportunities. Steve Revilak, an Arlington resident and member of the town’s redevelopment board, said the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the demand for suburban single-family homes.

“Starting in the first year that everyone was spooked by the pandemic, if [people] were living in apartment buildings or in cities, they wanted to get the heck out,” Revilak said. “It's like, ‘Well, we're worried about contagion, so we want to be able to separate ourselves from other people and not have to walk through hallways.’ . . . We have a real shortage of this kind of housing, and the price just goes up.”

Arlington's obstacles to affordable housing

While low housing supply and high demand is the thread running through many Boston suburbs, Arlington faces particular obstacles to creating sufficient affordable-housing opportunities. Experts agree that Arlington’s zoning, or the urban-planning laws that determine the location and density of residential neighborhoods, limits the ability to create a wide variety of housing options. 

To see Arlington's zoning map, click here >>
 
Arlington via Google Earth: Your Town, Your Future

A 2021 map created by Arlington’s Geographic Information System office shows that many residential zones are dedicated to single-family units. DataTown, a tool created by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership's Center for Housing Data, to make accessible statistics about local communities, reports with 90-percent confidence that single-family homes make up 44.6 percent of all housing stock in the town.

According to a town Redevelopment Board meeting on March 7, 79 percent of Arlington’s land area is exclusively zoned for single-family home construction. Zillow.com, realtor.com and redfin.com websites, which offer approximate statistics about town housing markets, report that the average price of single-family homes in Arlington hovers around $1 million.

Functioning as a primarily residential community with many single-family homes lessens opportunity for cheaper renting and ownership options through duplexes, apartment buildings, townhouses or condominiums. Some believe adjusting town policy to reduce single-family zoning is one way to tackle the housing problem. 

“We need to give up single-family zoning. We need to allow more multi-unit buildings. We need them scattered around town,” LaCourt said. “Single-family zoning itself is a choke hold on increasing supply. We're not building apartment buildings. We're not building condo buildings that have smaller units. What we're doing is we're building mansions.” 

Revilak agrees, contending that building more units is the very first step to making housing more affordable. 

“Single-family homes are fine, but there should be more two-family [units], more triple deckers, townhouses, some more apartment buildings, and [we should] build a few stories of residential [units] on top of the businesses that are just a story tall,” Revilak said. “It's basically building more, building a variety and building for different income levels.”

Some voices oppose density, variety

But not all Arlington residents agree that increasing density and housing-stock variety is the way to go. Carol Kowalski, an Arlington resident, former town planning director and current assistant town manager for planning in Lexington, explained that some residents fear change, and strict zoning laws ensure consistent and familiar housing developments around town.

“There's a fear of bad design. People think that all apartments are going to look bad, which I don’t think is necessarily true,” Kowalski said. “This is a lot of fear about change and that's the basis for a lot of our zoning.”

Other residents oppose additional development, because they worry that naturally occurring affordable housing, or unoccupied homes without deed restrictions, which could be sold for affordable prices, will be overlooked or built upon.

[People] don't come to suburbs for a lot of high-rise apartment buildings. They come to the suburbs because they like grass and trees and a little space in the backyard and a single-family house, maybe two-family houses.”

                                                                                                            -- John Worden, an attorney and former moderator of Arlington Town Meeting 

Patricia Worden, a former member of the Arlington Housing Authority and 55-year town resident, suggests that local government focus on preserving and renovating existing homes instead of building new ones.

“I think there should be much more help to the housing authority in acquiring and renovating existing properties,” Worden said. “[Pre-existing affordable housing] needs really extensive and comprehensive updating, and it's very important because people really have liked living there and they seem happy with it.” 

John Worden, Patricia Worden’s husband, an attorney and former moderator of Arlington Town Meeting, echoes his wife and argues that creating more housing developments changes Arlington’s suburban aesthetic and reduces its benefits. 

“[People] don't come to suburbs for a lot of high-rise apartment buildings,” he said. “They come to the suburbs because they like grass and trees and a little space in the backyard and a single-family house, maybe two-family houses.”

Pointing to garden apartments, or low-rise buildings with considerable green space, as an option that provides affordable housing while maintaining Arlington’s aesthetic, John Worden believes the best solution has been hiding in plain sight under the town’s nose, waiting to be noticed. 

“[Garden apartments] have just been sitting there for years, and they're what we call naturally affordable, because the families who own them haven't raised the rents that much,” he said. “They have some very reasonable rents, and those kinds of properties, that's the sort of thing that should be maintained and preserved.” 

No single solution to housing issues

Raitt, the town’s planning and community-development director, agrees that preserving and readapting naturally affordable buildings is one tool the town can use to create opportunity for affordable housing.

“More recently, we approved a development that was created by the Housing Corporation of Arlington, and it is an adaptive reuse because it used to be a church building. And then the Community Development Corporation was able to transform it into nine units of better homes that are affordable to people,” Raitt said. “[There is] a wide range of housing types and locations and possibilities of when you talk about and think about affordable housing.” (See the 20 Westminster project.) 

Residents and experts contend that there’s no single solution to the housing crisis. Instead, it’s going to take a conglomeration of strategies to truly make a difference. Kowalski said that the state is taking preliminary measures to create housing-stock diversity through drafting a Multi-family Zoning Requirement for MBTA Communities

Through this January 2021 draft addition to the statewide economic-development bill, any community served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will be required to designate at least one zoning district to multifamily housing developments to create “housing supportive zoning and development,” according to a letter sent to MBTA community officials.

The towns don’t have to go out and build [multi-unit housing]. They just have to allow it . . . The fact that they needed a state law to change that means that those communities weren't allowing apartments by right. One thing that concerns me about MBTA multifamily is there is no affordable requirement . . . .”

                                                                              -- Carol Kowalski, an Arlington resident and assistant town manager for planning in Lexington

Yet Kowalski explained that allowing multifamily units to be built is only the first step, and it doesn’t actually guarantee the creation of any additional affordable housing.

“The towns don’t have to go out and build [multi-unit housing]. They just have to allow it . . . The fact that they needed a state law to change that means that those communities weren't allowing apartments by right,” Kowalski said. “One thing that concerns me about MBTA multifamily is there is no affordable requirement, so it won't necessarily help with our affordable housing. It could help with creating more units.”

While the multifamily zoning requirement is the most recent, albeit tangentially beneficial, idea the state has drafted to improving the housing crisis, Arlington officials have been taking several measures of its own to attack the problem. 

Raitt referenced the 2022-2027 Arlington Housing Plan, which delineates strategies the town is proposing “to increase the supply of affordable housing in all Arlington neighborhoods.” (The Select Board voted, 4-0, to accept the plan April 20.)

“We identified three categories of barriers that need to be addressed in order to help work toward the creation of more affordable housing and preserve homes to make sure that they're affordable,” Raitt said. The three are regulatory, funding and leadership.

As to regulation, Raitt said the town is considering several forms of zoning-law reform beyond the MBTA multifamily zoning. Potential reforms include meeting Chapter 40B requirements, which is a 1969 Massachusetts statute requiring “10 percent of total year-round housing units [to] be deed-restricted to be affordable for low- or moderate-income households,” according to the Arlington Housing Plan. 

To meet that 10-percent threshold, Chapter 40B allows developers to override zoning restrictions limiting multifamily units. Under the statute, a household making less than 80 percent of the town’s area median income, or AMI, should be able to afford to pay housing expenses and still have enough assets left over to cover basic needs.

Reforms include inclusionary zoning, trust fund

Karen Kelleher graphicKaren Kelleher graphic

Other potential regulatory reforms include instituting inclusionary zoning. Raitt described that as a requirement for private housing developers to create a certain amount of affordable units. It could also consolidate existing zoning districts, which Raitt said could “create more viable sites for new multifamily development and mixed-use development.” The director also highlighted the importance of implementing an affirmative fair-marketing plan, which ensures that affordable-housing opportunities are equitably marketed to a large audience consisting of different socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.  

The town is also taking steps to pool funding for creating and preserving affordable housing. One method is through establishing the Affordable Housing Trust Fund

Karen Kelleher is an Arlington resident and chair of the fund. She explained that the goal of the trust fund is to mobilize the town to become proactive toward affordable-housing solutions, and they hope to have an action plan delineating strategies by the end of the summer. But because the trust fund is so new, those involved have yet to find a reliable source of dollars.

Although it has yet to complete the legislative-approval process, Kelleher explained that the trust fund is considering imposing a fee on real estate transfers as a source of funding.

“We have a lot of transactions over a million dollars in town. A lot of the sellers are realizing a tremendous amount of equity growth, not because they put money into the property, but because the market has exploded,” Kelleher explained. “And so the transfer fee would ask those sellers to leave a little bit of that behind to support affordability and to sustainably fund our affordable-housing trust fund.”

Both Raitt and Kelleher also referenced Arlington’s use of the Community Preservation Act, a program giving towns an opportunity to raise money for affordable housing, historical site preservation and the creation of outdoor recreational facilities by imposing a real estate tax.

Above all, Raitt emphasized that there are a wide variety of paths the town can take to address the housing crisis, and rather than perceiving one method as better than another, she said, they can all work together as various tools to help make Arlington homes more affordable for everyone.

“It's not at all about a one size fits all or only one type of option,” she said. In fact, some developments are new construction. Some include a mix of old and new. Some completely preserve an existing structure. “It means fully embracing and moving forward together as a community to address the issue of housing affordability and availability.”


Arlington's 2022-2027 housing plan


This explanatory news report by freelancer Katie Mogg, a second-year journalism student at Northeastern University, was published Sunday, April 24, 2022.

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