Arlington's Paper Wall

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(Talk given at "The State of Zoning for Multifamily Housing in Greater Boston with Amy Dain", July 25, 2019)


Hello, my name is Steve Revilak and I'm a resident of Arlington.

I first became interested in zoning for two reasons: I'm a town meeting member, and occasionally we take up zoning articles at town meeting. The second comes from being a homeowner who's had to navigate the building permit process, and finding it much more challenging than it needs to be. In 2016, I got myself on a working group to recodify our zoning bylaw. This was mostly an editorial cleanup -- our bylaw had been amended hundreds of times since it was written in 1975, and it desperately needed some tidying up.

Along the way, I learned a little bit about the history of Arlington zoning and how our paper wall got built. I'd like to share some of those stories with you, because I think they're interesting and important to understand.

Once upon a time, Arlington built a lot of multifamily housing in the form of apartments, and we even have or own pejorative form of inexpensive housing: the Arlington Pillbox. This was our version of the "Weed of Dorchester", the triple-decker.

Our 1975 zoning rewrite was generally a revolt against apartment buildings. It started in 1973 with a two-year moratorium on the construction of new apartment buildings. Between 1975 and the early 1990's we put a lot of limits on new housing construction, multifamily in particular. I think the time period is somewhat consistent with Ms. Dain's research findings.

The number of apartment buildings constructed is one of the best illustrations of what our zoning bylaw did. In the past 44 years -- since 1976-- we've built five apartment buildings with 9+ units. In the 44 years before the bylaw was passed, we built 53 of them.

Our last 4--8 unit apartment was built in 1976 (it was a six-plex). In the 44 years prior, we built 22 of them.

For three families: We've built three of these since 1976; in the 44 years preceding, we built 15.

That's a stark difference.

Our 1975 recodification also involved a certain amount of dimensional and density shenanigans. There's one is particular that was a real zinger. It's just plain bad.

Okay -- Arlington allows townhouses in a number of residential districts, and they generally require a 20,000 square foot lot. But there's an exception -- a district that requires 30,000 square feet for a townhouse. We call this district R4: The Townhouse district. The largest lot in this district is about 26,000 square feet, which means we have a townhouse district where you can't actually build a townhouse.

So, how did this come to be? Back in the 1970's we had one resident that was strongly opposed to having townhouses on a particular street that happened to be R4. He lobbied hard for a 40,000 square foot lot requirement, because it would have been next to impossible to assemble a lot of that size, even by combining pairs of adjacent properties. The redevelopment board compromised and gave him 30,000.

When you look at zoning laws, this is the kind of thing you have to pay attention for. The innocent looking number isn't always so innocent.

So what are some of the effects we see today? The metro-Boston area has produced a lot more jobs than housing. People are moving into the area. That's created a housing shortage, which is driving prices up.

Over 50% of Arlington's land is zoned for single family homes, and our housing prices are predominantly land driven. A buildable single-, two-, or three-family lot costs about $450,000 -- that's just for the lot. These lots are worth more than the single-, two-, and three-family homes built upon them.

Multi-family housing (or anything to ameliorate the cost of land) could really help here. A $450k lot with a single-family home means that one household has to pay $450k for land. With a two-family, each household pays $225k for land. With a three-family, you're down to $150k/household. That's real money. And it would increase supply too.

In terms of moving forward, I think Arlington and Medford are in very different situations. From what I understand, Medford has residents that recognize the problems caused by our housing shortage and you're trying to convince City leaders to take up the cause.

Arlington has a town manager and a department of planning and community development the are keenly aware of the problems. Our challenge is to convince residents and town meeting.

The town tried to make progress in this area at our last town meeting with articles to further mixed use and multifamily residential. They were substantially oriented towards taking properties that were made non-conforming by 1970's-era down-zoning, and making them conforming again. It generated a really polarized debate, and the ARB wound up withdrawing the articles.

But that's not the end of it. Last Monday our town manager made a presentation to the select board on our regional housing shortage, and his involvement with the MMC's housing task force. The select board also recognizes this is a problem, and they're planning to work with the ARB during coming months to see how we might address it.

I think we have a good opportunity, but we also have a lot of work to do.

Thank you.