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Resident tells why he calls housing plan deeply flawed

The following opinion piece about town planning's updated five-year housing plan was written by Don Seltzer of Arlington. His comments are from a longer analysis with supporting data published at He says his views are his own and that they do not represent a group.

Arlington vua Google Earth: Your Town, Your Future

On Monday, Jan. 24, Arlington’s Redevelopment Board could complete its review of the draft version of the new housing production plan before passing it on to the Select Board to approve.  The submitted plan is deeply flawed in that it does not include the required analysis of likely growth as it affects our infrastructure, particularly our schools.  Also, it diverges from the goal of increasing affordable housing by proposing measures that are only meant to improve housing choices for the very highest income households.

This plan, developed by consultants Barrett Planning Group LLC and Horsely Witten Group Inc, will replace the town's current plan, approved in 2016.  Unlike that one, the new version suffers from a serious lack of analysis and discussion of the real impacts of the proposals.

Growth impact required

State guidelines require that the plan evaluate the impact of future housing growth on all types of infrastructure, including school capacity.  Our previous housing plan devoted four pages to this analysis.  This draft report has but a single paragraph, which dismisses capacity as being of no concern, based solely on the 2015 McKibben forecast.  However, that 2015 forecast made no assumptions about housing growth, nor changing family demographics from new, denser housing.  The recent census shows that Arlington’s population is growing far faster than McKibben predicted.  We have already reached a population that McKibben predicted we would not see until the next decade.

Consider this rule of thumb -- for every 80 housing units we add, expect to fill up another classroom.

Consider the cost of a new elementary school -- $55 million (Marblehead’s Brown Elementary School, recently opened). 

The other failing of this draft housing plan is that it strays from the specific direction of the state in its scope.  The guidelines emphasize that the plan should address housing for families making “not more than 30% Area Median Income (AMI), more than 30% but not more than 80% AMI, and more than 80% but not more than 120% AMI . . . .”

What is AMI?

The area median income, or AMI, is the midpoint of a region's income distribution. That means half of households in a region earn more than the median and half earn less than the median.

A household's income is calculated by its gross income, which is the total income received before taxes and other payroll deductions.

Area median income is determined by HUD for different regions and is used to set income limits for many affordable-housing programs.

Arlington is in the greater Boston region, for which the current AMI is a household income of $120,000. The definition is further broken down into different levels for different household sizes.

Low income is defined to be less than 80 percent of AMI.

Very low income is defined as less than 50 percent of AMI.

Extremely low income is less than 30 percent of AMI.
 Range of affordability?

And yet, the very first recommended action in this plan has nothing to do with this range of affordability.  It seeks to eliminate our single-family districts by allowing two-family homes by right everywhere.  It is implied that this will somehow lead to more affordable housing.

It is an unrealistic pipe dream to expect that by doing so, we will somehow generate any sort of trickle-down housing for low-income households of under 80-percent AMI.  This is not a matter of speculation.

Arlington has many hundreds of single-family homes in the R2 districts.  As these gradually reach the market -- and sometimes without actually going on the market - they are immediately snapped up by developers for teardown and conversion to duplex condos,  for which each unit is more expensive than the original single-family.  

In the past five to six years, almost 70 homes in R2 districts have been demolished and redeveloped as duplex condominiums.  Some were single families; some were traditional two family rentals.

All were moderately affordable, but all were replaced with more expensive condos. These examples show clearly the likely trend if we allow two families by right in R0-1 districts.

2-family-home impact

Much the same is happening with older two-family homes, a major part of our rental stock. As the draft plan acknowledges: “Two-family rentals have historically been common in Arlington, but as two-family properties convert to condominium ownership, the supply of small-scale rental options will decline" 

It is clear from dozens of recent duplex conversions in town that this type of redevelopment spurs accelerated gentrification, producing housing affordable only by high income families making more than 200 percent of AMI.

At the Dec. 16 presentation to the Redevelopment Board, a board member asked the author of this draft report how the elimination of single-family zoning to allow duplexes would increase affordability when recent sales data showed that single-family homes were being replaced with condo duplexes.

The report’s author was quite candid that “Not everything in this report is about affordability . . . I was not thinking about affordability with two-family . . . some of it is about choice . . . .”

The “choice” that is being promoted is for the affluent.

“As you become more affluent, your housing choices decline . . . . if your incomes go up, the housing choices decline." 

200%-plus AMI

The author was referring to households in the 200-percent-plus AMI category, who could afford or wanted to spend $1 million or more on a home.  The ‘problem’ of choice was that the selection was primarily limited to traditional single-family homes, because there are not enough luxury condo duplexes in Arlington to satisfy the demand.

There is nothing in the state guidelines to suggest that we should be implementing housing policy to promote more choices for households making more than 200-percent AMI. 

The residents who would be most affected are the one-third of Arlington households that have an annual income of between $100,000 and $200,000.  This includes many of our first responders and two-income teacher households.  For this middle-third, smaller, older single-family homes that range from $600,000 to $800,000 are attainable.  But this housing plan attacks that existing, moderately affordable housing base by encouraging teardowns and replacement with duplex condos.  

The middle third of Arlington is slowly being squeezed out, by eliminating the home ownership that is within their means. Arlington needs a housing plan that focuses on adding more affordable housing, rather than accelerating gentrification.

Updated town draft housing plan

This viewpoint was published Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

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