Housing Public Forum - Jun 14th, 2018

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Held at the Arlington senior center, and organized by the Department of Planning and Community Development.

Panelists for this evening's forum are:

  • Chris Kluchman, Massachusetts Housing Choice Program
  • Dana LeWinter, Citizens Housing and Planning Association
  • Pam Hallett, Housing Corporation of Arlington
  • Susan Connelly, Massachusetts Housing Partnership

Jenny Raitt gives a brief welcome.

(Dan Dunn) Town meeting has endorsed ambitious housing goals, through our master plan and housing production plan. We need education and tools to figure out how to meet these challenges. Finances are currently the town's biggest challenge -- we're spending more than we're taking in. The housing crisis is our second biggest challenge; it's hard for people to find housing in Arlington that they can afford. We will need change and compromise in order to solve this problem.

Jenny Raitt lists a few tools we could consider: allowing more multi-family housing by right, accessory dwelling units, and more inclusionary zoning.

(Chris Kluchman) Housing is all about people. Do we have the housing stock to accommodate our people, our changing demographics, and our changing needs? We're living longer, and the older population is growing.

Our workforce is also changing. Right now, there will not be enough workers to replace baby boomers when they retire. Retirement creates many job openings, but few housing vacancies. If people can't find a place to downsize, they're likely to stay in the home they're in.

We have a supply and demand problem in Massachusetts. During the 1960s through the 1980s, we built about 30,000 houses/year. We've produced significantly fewer houses since then.

Middlesex county has a 2% vacancy rate for rentals and a 0.5% vacancy rate for home owners. A healthy market usually has a vacancy rate in the 5--6% range. That level of vacancy means that a person who wishes to move will likely be able to find a place to live.

Massachusetts has the fastest growing home sale prices in the country. Even higher than California.

The high-end rental market has expanded during the last 10 years. However, there's been little expansion at the middle and low end. People in lower and middle income ranges are brandied by the cost of housing (meaning that they spend 30% or more of their income on housing).

In short, no -- we do not have the housing stock we need.

(Pam Hallett) The Housing Corporation of Arlington (HCA) is a non-profit with a 12-member board of directors and 2.5 full-time staff. We have 93 affordable units under management and 57 units in our development pipeline. We have a homelessness prevention program, and have assisted 597 families to date. Our buildings are located all over town.

The Arlington housing authority has 710 units, with a waitlist of over 1,400 families.

There are 146 affordable units by Mill Brook; there's a three-year waiting list to get into one of those units.

HCA has around 30 units in Capitol Square, with a waitlist of about 162.

One-third of the people on HCA's waitlist are Arlington residents. 1,130 of them are children. Many of the waitlisted families earn less than $20,000/year, but the number in the $20--40,000 range is growing.

In Massachusetts, the average wage of a renter is $7.68/hour too low for their rent to be affordable. A person needs to make $34--36/hour to afford a two bedroom apartment in Arlington.

(Susan Connelly) The Massachusetts Housing Partnership finances affordable renter programs, and the Massachusetts first-time home buyers program. Every affordable project is influenced at the federal, state, local, and neighborhood levels.

Demographics are changing. There's a preference for smaller homes, and more walkable communities.

Restrictive zoning is a significant reason for the increase in housing costs since the 1980s.

Massachusetts does not have a state office of planning.

Susan talks about "affordable" (with a little "a") vs. "Affordable" (with a big "A"). The former means you're getting a good deal. The latter is subsidized to support people at lower income levels.

We need to change the way we think about economic growth. For example, the Everett casino is expected to provide 4,000 jobs when it opens. But the amount of money these people will earn won't allow them to live in Everett. Where will they be able to live?

Regional transit investments have not been met with regional housing solutions. Housing and transit have developed in different places.

There's a high correlation between building permits per capita and migration. On a national level, we see people moving out of areas where they can't afford housing. This includes Massachusetts.

What can communities do? Think about areas where you can accommodate more housing density.

(Dana LeWinter) Community support can make or break housing initiatives. Coalition building is important. This includes municipal staff, elected officials, housing advocates, local businesses, churches, environmental groups, and service providers. Models have to be flexible, to meet communities where they are. We try to build a culture that welcomes housing, expands housing opportunities, and supports housing production. Educating people about (say) waitlists at the housing authority can help move them.

(Chris Kluchman) The Baker/Polito administration is looking at changes to the state zoning law. Towns require a 2/3's vote to change zoning. Our proposal would allow zoning changes with a simple majority, if the change would support housing production. The state is also working on a set of guidelines to improve housing production.

At this point, the meeting opens up for questions and comments. (I was able to take down many, but not all of them.)

Comment: I'd like to thank the person who mentioned people. I'd like to see tenants included in more of the discussions about housing. I feel like renters aren't valued as much as homeowners. We spend too much money on policing and not enough on housing.

Question: Earlier, one of the speakers mentioned renting an apartment in Davis Square for $800-something a month. How much would that apartment cost now?

About $2400/month.

Question: What about Air BnB?

It's taken units out of the market.

Comment: There's been a lot of emphasis on building new housing. Section 8 payment vouchers don't match rental costs in Arlington. I'd like to see the Arlington Housing Authority opt in to the market rate provision for section 8 vouchers.

Question: Earlier, there was a chart showing housing production. Is that state-wide?


Comment: It's good to look at the housing policy vs. job creation policies.

Question: How can the Housing Authority change its infrastructure regarding section 8 vouchers? And can they do something about the exceptionally long wait times?

The AHA's section 8 program is federally funded, and managed by HUD representatives in Boston. Those are the folks you need to contact, and you may need patience to get through to them.

Comment: Housing authorities are very exploitative. There are board of health violations and poor conditions.

Question: Regarding the community choice program -- is the funding stable, or subject to appropriations?

The housing choice budget is partially appropriated. 2/3's is funded by the governors capital plan.

Question: Can we do something about the epidemic of teardowns?

It's very hard to limit property rights in Massachusetts.

Question: How do you deal with situations where economics clash with social ideals?

Bringing people together and talking can help. Meet with people, and try to address their concerns. Take field trips. People are more positive when they feel like they've been involved in the process. Get testimony.

Question: The waiting list figures cited earlier -- are they subject to double-counting? (This individual had two more questions, which I missed.)

The housing authorities have a centralized waiting list, so there's no double-counting there. But it's possible for some to (say) be on both the AHA and HCA waiting lists.

Comment (from me): My house was built in 1948, and originally sold for $4,995. Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $53,000 today. The assessed value of my property is $419,000, and that's a disaster.

(I few days later, I went to double check this amount, and see the I got it wrong. The original price was actually $6,250 which would be $65,000 in today's dollars. Although that's less of a difference, I still think it's a disaster.)