Your View (site blog, not mine personally)
Residents offer views about housing, related issues
UPDATED, Jan. 27: The following are comments from residents delivered to a joint meeting of the Select and Redevelopment boards on Monday, Jan. 13. Read the news summary about that meeting >>
Don Seltzer of Irving Street presented the following statement
I would like to speak about the outreach strategy, past and present
Last year, the town limited the scope of its outreach. The public forums ignored discussions of infrastructure, transportation, and most importantly schools.
At nearly every forum I attended someone asked, ‘What will be the impact on our schools?’
The answer was always the same -- ‘We don’t know, we don’t study that sort of thing.’
Are new students cheap?
The same question will come up again, and I am troubled by how town officials are preparing for it. They are using a hired consultant to push an incorrect narrative about the cost impact of higher housing density on our schools. I wish I had time to go into detail but it comes down to this:
They claim that new students are cheap, just half the per capita cost of students already in the system. This claim is based upon the mistaken idea that a Finance Committee appropriation tool called the ‘Enrollment Growth Factor’ accurately represents the true marginal cost of increased enrollment.
They are badly mistaken. They have overlooked the fact that a significant portion of school costs are completely outside of the school budget, tucked away in other town budgets.
The school budget does not pay for $3.6M per year in pension contributions.
It does not pay for $9.2M in health-care costs for teachers.
And most significantly, the school budget does not even pay for our school buildings.
In fact, more than $25M of school costs are paid for by other town budgets, which carry the brunt of increasing enrollment.
In the last three years, 600 students have been added to our Public Schools, overloading our classroom capacity.
Cost of enrollment expansion
What has this enrollment expansion cost us?
We have spent millions in temporary modular classrooms.
In 2017 we had to expand the Thompson School by 6 classrooms, at a cost of $4M.
In 2018, it was Hardy, another 6 classroom addition at a cost of $4.8M
And just this past year we reopened the Gibbs at a cost of $27M in new debt. We also lost $340K per year in rental income.
These expansion costs are a result of changing demographics. What will be the impact of a large increase in housing?
The town average is 30 students in our schools for every 100 housing units.
For every 1500 new housing units, figure on building a new elementary school.
If we were to achieve the Metro Mayors Coalition goal for increased housing, we could expect 2000 more students in our system. How could we possibly handle that?
The $7,300 per year Marginal Cost figure being used for Planning purposes is a bogus number, to put it politely.
It ignores millions spent for teacher benefits;
It ignores millions spent on modular classrooms;
It ignores millions spent each year on debt payments for school expansion projects.
It ignores the very real imminent threat of a new elementary school, required by a rising student enrollment.
It is time to bring the Finance Committee and the Capital Planning Committee into these discussions for a realistic analysis of the problem.
Our outreach program for next year cannot simply be surveys and public opinion polls. The town needs to provide some serious planning analysis to adequately inform its residents of the consequences of actions.
Alex Bagnall, a Precinct 7 Town Meeting member, provided his notes via image. Here is what he wrote:
I think our bylaws are working exactly as designed:
- Encourage single- and two-family construction with by-right permitting;
- Discourage multifamily construction through minimum lot sizes, density restrictions and parking requirements and
- A special-permit process that enables a handful of incumbents residents to change, delay and ultimately make it so only economically viable developments are high-end projects.
This structurally unequal treatment has proven itself quite effective at
perpetuating and increasing race- and class-based segregation.
Maintaining our existing zoning laws does not merely maintain the status quo for Arlington bow slowly works to increase inequality.
When asked about repealing 40B on a ballot question in 2010, Arlington voted almost 2 to 1 to preserve 40B, suggesting that the town as a whole is not satisfied with the results of our multi-family permitting process.
As a structural problem, I think this calls for a structural solution and I encourage this to be a broader conversation than just about the contents of our zoning bylaws. Thank you.
Stephen Revilak of Sunnyside Avenue presented the following statement:
In the interest of disclosure, I live in market-rate housing that was built by a developer.
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.
What town survey suggests
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 master's 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.
Aram Hollman, 12 Whittemore St., 22-year Arlington resident, former Town Meeting member and possible future Town Meeting member, offered these comments, revised after Jan. 13:
Arlington's primary needs are more affordable housing and more commercial/industrial space. He don't need more market-rate (read luxury) housing.
In Arlington's master plan, goal number 2 is to have an ethnically and economically diverse population. We're ethnically diverse, but are becoming less and less economically diverse, as people of limited means find Arlington less and less affordable. We're becoming a gated community, where the high cost of housing is the gate.
However, we shouldn't turn our commercial and industrial areas into more housing. More housing provides minimal net gain to the town, because most of the extra tax revenue goes to providing more services. In contrast, commercial/industrial properties provides a significant gain to the town's bottom line, because we provide them far fewer services. That helps mitigate our town's spending problem, which is that we're increasing town spending at about 4% annually in a town whose residents' incomes aren't increasing at anywhere near that rate, if at all.
Commercial/industrial properties do more than improve the town's financial position. More local jobs mean more jobs, including for Arlington residents, reducing commuter congestion. Local jobs provide identity; without them, Arlington is simply a bedroom community for workers mostly commuting to highly-paid jobs in Boston and Cambridge. Some of these jobs are lower-paid, and allow those with lower incomes to remain in Arlington.
In the 22 years I've lived here, we've gone in the wrong direction. When I moved here, the town's tax base was 95% residential, 5% commercial. It's now closer to 96% and 4%, respectively. That's because we've repeatedly converted commercial property to housing. The Legacy, should've remained commercial. Instead, it became 135 housing units. None of them are affordable. The Symmes Hospital site contains well over 300 units of housing; I'm not sure of the exact amount. Only a few are affordable. The Brigham, named after the ice cream company once headquartered there, contains 140 units, one-sixth of which are affordable.
To put this in perspective, to the roughly 20,000 housing units that Arlington had 20 years ago, Arlington has added roughly 1,000 more over the last 20 years, so that we now have roughly 21,000 units. Of those roughly 1,000 units, the three aforementioned projects (Legacy, Symmes, Brigham) contain over half of them. Of that half, only a tiny fraction are affordable. Of the remaining less than half, almost none are affordable.
Yet, despite all this, the $70,000 allocated for the RKG study of commercial/industrial areas is suggesting that we mix more housing into these areas, exactly what we don't need.
To sum up, we need to increase our commercial/industrial tax base, to improve the town's finances, to provide local jobs at a mixture of income levels, and to help define Arlington as more than a bedroom community.
Beth Melofchick, 20 Russell St., a Precinct 9 Town Meeting member, offered these comments Jan. 13:
I actually ran for town meeting last Spring because I was so horrified at your, Planning Department's, information forum last January 2019, the housing forum. I was horrified both by the message as well as the methods that were employed by the people we paid, MAPC and CHAPA so I hope that moving forward we will not utilize them again.
I would like to reiterate statements of my colleagues tonight that we need to address Arlington's problems particularly since as stated our commercial tax base is 5% that might include commercial and industrial, 5%. The remaining 14 members of the Metro Mayors Coalition, for which we pay a membership fee of $10,000 a year, second year running, I don't know why, I don't know what we have in common with them when the remaining members of Metro Mayors Coalition have a commercial tax base of 48%. They have money to build schools, we do not which you know if you read the Arlington List.
I am very pleased by David Watson's comments. Thank you so much for remembering we have limited industrial zone and commercial zone in town. I think that needs to be protected. I would like to see a warrant article to protect that, to preserve it. We do not need to turn it in to residences. We need to turn it into lab and research space, which is going for pretty hot rents in Cambridge and Kendall Square.
Holistic, I like your holistic viewpoint. We need to think of Arlington as a town, as a community, all of it, retired people, people on limited income, seniors.
I live in a neighborhood that does have single room occupancy, SROs, I think Ms. Mahon mentioned it, so it can be done. You get the funds in your warrant article that is going to address affordable housing. Buy the house before a developer does, tears it down and puts up luxury duplexes which is what is happening in East Arlington.
Green: I was glad to hear that Ms. Raitt said we want to be a green community. We sure as hell do and there are a bunch of us who are working on a natural gas ban. Brookline has provided us with the primer. They have shown us how to do it and why to do it. They have done the ground work for us. I hope that we will see such a warrant article this spring.
A lot of people want to lower the green house gases which the Arlington high school building committee just made more difficult by removing many of the green features from the high school. I hope the Select Board will get personally interested in that and fix it. We need the solar panels, we need the geothermal wells, we need the food digester because as Mr. Chapdelaine mentioned at the Select Board goal setting meeting in August 2019, that Jon Gersh and I attended, refuse and recycling is getting more expensive to remove in town. I assume that is why the food digester was in the high school plan in the first place.
Lets save the tree canopy on Mass. Ave. and not take it down, at Broadway Plaza and lets not move the Veterans' Park to behind the police station.
Thank you very much, you will be hearing more from me.
These viewpoints were published Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, and updated Jan, 27, to add an opinion.
There is no "right" to live in Arlington. We don't need to build affordable housing. This is just another crutch for people. People need to be realistic as to what they can afford to pay for rent/mortgage. That dollar amount may not be in Arlington and may not even be in Massachusetts. Yes Arlington is a nice place to live but unfortunately some may have to live elsewhere. There are some very nice places around the country that have jobs and housing readily available. David Starr
We have abundant evidence of the current rapid pace of change in Arlington's real estate world. Just see the recent article in the Advocate regarding Redfin's data on how Arlington is ranked among the country's most competitive real estate markets in 2019. This is not due to any policies that our town has adopted. It is because we are located close to the booming Greater Boston center of technological innovation. People who can afford it want to live here. Yes, and they want to send their kids to school here. But in the process they also spend much of their income here, which benefits the entire local economy and increases our tax base. We don't want to turn this back. But we want to manage it sensibly, which includes zoning to allow for higher density housing that is attractive and practical and which meets other objectives such as diversity and good schools.
Your comments are very much appreciated by someone who makes far, far less than $200,000/year and simply wants to be able to stay in her tiny little home in the town where she feels a very close connection to the community. This is where I walk down the streets and find memories at nearly every corner: the library where my children discovered love of reading, the preschools that they attended; the coffee shops where I have spent hours deep in conversation with old and new friends; the open spaces where my kids learned to love nature, and my dog and I wandered joyfully. I and many others who consider this to be home, will most likely be forced to leave dear Arlington due to short-sightedness.
With so many highly educated and creative minds here, it is disheartening that Arlington cannot come up with a way to maintain the vibrant socio-economic diversity that enriched the town in so many ways for so many years. I fear that we will begin to see a mass exodus as a result of the astronomical increase in property taxes. Only the very privileged will be able to continue calling Arlington home. And, then what will our town look like?
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