Joint Redevelopment, Select Board Meeting - Jan 13th, 2020

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Select Board chair Diane Mahon and Redevelopment Board chair Andrew Bunnell open the meeting. Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine will facilitate, to avoid any issues with dueling chairs. Mr. Chapdelaine has worked in town for nearly a decade, and this is the first joint meeting of the Select and Redevelopment boards that he's seen.

Housing in Arlington Overview. DPCD Director Jenny Raitt gives an overview of housing and Arlington. Housing touches on many other areas, and her overview will not be strictly limited to housing. DPCD has started work on the sustainable mobility plan. The master plan doesn't give much consideration to mobility, and there have been numerous technological changes since the master plan was written. The plan will consider how Arlington should be connected to the wider region. Transportation, housing, and economic development are all interconnected.

The town is working on a greenhouse gas inventory as part of its Net Zero Plan. One of the goals is to help the town think about public buildings, and the direction to steer private development. Getting to net zero will involve both the public and private sectors.

The zoning bylaw working group is overseeing an economic analysis of the industrial zones. A very small part of the town is zoned for industrial use, and we're looking at ways to innovatively use this land in the future.

Residential design guidelines are another effort. The Residential Study Group looked at replacement homes in the R0--R2 districts. We've hired a consultant to work on the design guidelines, and to help us develop a review process. This may involve bylaw amendments, but not this spring. Diane Mahon asks who we hired to work on residential design guidelines. We hired Harriman.

Mr. Chapdelaine recalls that he's given a housing presentation to both boards. There's consensus that we have an affordability crisis in Arlington and in the Metro-Boston region. There's consensus on the need for more affordable housing. There's no consensus on how to get there.

Ms. Mahon asks a question about how long affordability restrictions last.

Dan Dunn says that the budget and health insurance were the main concerns when he first ran for Select Board. Five years later, health insurance was less of a problem and the schools were more of an issue. Now, the issues are housing and housing cost. If we do nothing, housing in Arlington will become more expensive, and the community will become more homogeneous and less mixed. He's glad we're thinking about this issue.

Joe Curro has met with the Council on Aging, who say that the cost of housing is often an issue for seniors. He'd like to look at the social and economic causes behind this. He asks a question about sustainable growth.

Ms. Raitt believes we should look at how people move around town, and how transportation patterns can change with economic growth. We should also look at future sources of transportation demand.

David Watson wishes to raise several points. He says the ARB draws a distinction between the legal definition of affordability and affordability in general. He believes we're talking about both, including housing for the mid-market. Mr. Watson wants to keep commercial growth in mind, so we don't limit or inhibit it.

Proposed Board Review of Future Warrant Articles. Mr. Chapdelaine opens this section of the meeting. Historically, the Select Board has not weighed in on other board's decision. Now, the two boards are willing to work together. Some goals will affect both the town bylaws and zoning bylaws. We could approach this by having each body decide on which articles to review, after the warrant closes.

Ms. Mahon doesn't want to see the ARB left hanging out there on their own. She believes that a better understanding of these issues would help her. She'd like to have a protocol where the select board could be informed about important issues, and would like both boards to really think about how the process should work.

Mr. Bunnell likes the idea of a protocol. He doesn't think every article will need dual review, but it would be helpful to have the Select Board weigh in on big changes.

Eugene Benson would make a distinction between ARB- and resident-initiated articles. He'd like to get the Select Board's input on ARB-initiated articles before they're filed.

Mr. Curro thinks we hit the nail on the head. Each board can make independent judgments, but can provide advice and support to the other.

Mr. Chapdelaine thinks it's too late to adopt Mr. Benson's suggestion for this year, but it's a good idea for next year. He wouldn't recommend that both boards take motions and vote, but they can review and suggest. He agrees that it's not necessary for both boards to review every single article that comes up.

John Hurd asks whether the Select Board would wait for the ARB to ask for review, or if the two chairs would meet and decide. Mr. Chapdelaine thinks the chairs should meet this year. Next year, the ARB might notify the Select Board early in the process.

Kin Lau says the ARB makes recommendations when they see issues that need to be addressed. The ARB needs help and opinions on how to address these needs. Once they have the general direction, they can work on the details.

Mr. Bunnell believes that one of the objectives should be to get policies and goals in harmony. Mr. Benson notes that the challenge lies in figuring out how we get from where we are to where we want to be.

Steve DeCourcey wants to make sure the process leaves enough time for back and fourth discussion. A joint meeting in the fall would help. He'd like main motions to come from the ARB.

Mr. Watson says that the ARB realized that it takes a holistic approach to solve housing problems. The solutions may go beyond the purview of the ARB. It's important to have an understanding of how things fit together.

Mr. Dunn is struck by thinking of how the town's finance processes work. A lot of different authorities collaborate on the budget. The finance committee, retirement board, and school committee for example. It's a multi-month dance. Each authority can take charge of steering their own boat, even if there's not consensus among all of the stakeholders.

Mr. Chapdelaine thinks that more collaboration between the boards could lead to more holistic decisions.

Mr. Hurd thinks main motions should be the purview of the ARB, but the two boards can work together on goals.

Ms. Mahon thinks that we can figure out when the planning director should appear before the select board, once we get the process ironed out. She'd like to have the planning director at all of the select board meetings, but realizes this isn't an efficient use of the planning director's time.

Mr. Chapdelaine thinks he's hearing consensus on the general process, though some details need to be worked out.

Potential Articles for Town Meeting. One of this spring's articles involves the formation of an affordable housing trust fund (AHTF), which will administer funds to be used for affordable housing. The Housing Plan Implementation Committee will discuss the article on Friday, but Ms. Raitt wanted to bring it to the Select Board's attention.

Mr. Curro asks about the interplay between the affordable housing trust fund and the community preservation act. Doug Heim says there are specific requirements, and the AHTF should meet CPA requirements for affordable housing. Mr. Curro asks if the CPA could invest in the AHTF. Ms. Raitt says the AHTF could request CPA appropriations for specific projects. Mr. Heim says the CPA committee could put money into the AHTF and act on things as the needs arise.

Ms. Mahon asks if there will be an independent audit of the AHTF. Ms. Raitt says there would be an audit. Ms. Mahon asks if the audit would be part of the town's annual audit. Ms. Raitt says it could be done that way.

Mr. DeCourcey asks: if Arlington adopted a real estate transfer fee, would the AHTF be the only place that money could go? Ms. Raitt says yes. Mr. DeCourcey notes that the housing production plan mentions the establishment of an affordable housing trust fund.

Ms. Mahon asks if there are other avenues for funding the AHTF, besides a transfer fee. Ms. Raitt says that several items currently in the state legislature would be able to fund the AHTF. DPCD looked at sales of property. There were 152 sales in 2019. The transfer fee would be based on a percentage of the sale price, over a certain threshold. If we had a 0.5% fee on sales over $1M, we would have netted $104k for the AHTF. For comparison, the CPA got $500k for affordable housing in FY 2020. Inclusionary zoning could be another source of funding, but that's not very common.

Mr. Watson is glad Ms. Raitt raised the issue of flexibility in the transfer fee threshold. He'd like to avoid increasing unaffordability in mid-market housing.

Mr. Chapdelaine says this is an example of a select board article where the ARB has an interest.

Community Outreach Plan. Ms. Raitt provides a draft community outreach plan. She'd like a transparent process that allows community engagement. The first phase is bringing awareness, designing materials, and developing ways to get public participation. The town survey has a number of questions on housing. We may be able to do additional survey work.

Open houses are a possible venue. The idea is to let people drop in and ask questions. We want to develop broader engagements when we know what people's opinions are. Policy development would take place in the latter portion of the process. It might be ready for a special town meeting in 2021.

Mr. Hurd thinks we should start by educating the public about the affordability crisis. We should start with a public presentation on the problem, and then figure out how to move towards a solution. Mr. Raitt says this is phase zero of the plan. She notes that there are non-town groups that would like to be involved. Mr. Hurd suggests having a forum at town hall.

Ms. Mahon says we need housing for vets, and adults with special needs. In veterans housing, there's money looking for a place to go. The Disability Commission might know of other needs that need to be met. She acknowledges that these types of facilities are six- and seven-figure development projects.

Ms. Raitt says that all kinds of different housing types should be part of the conversation.

Mr. Benson has two points. First, how do we make the town a more welcoming place. Second, who are the developers that will build this housing, and how do we invite them in and have conversations such that there will be people to enact the plan. We need to talk with the developers.

Rachel Zsembery offers an additional consideration: what are the commercial infrastructure needs that have to be addressed?

Mr. Watson is happy to see six months set aside for education and input. This is a plan, but it's not set in stone. We shouldn't try to cut the outreach and community education stages short.

Public Comment. (John Worden) Two things. Affordability is the most important housing issue in town. It should be the only kind of housing we build. Outreach is very important. The density articles were like selling air conditioning to Eskimos. Outreach shouldn't be a facilitated meeting pushing someone's agenda. The public needs opportunities for comment. Mansionization is the real problem. Rock busting is devastating neighborhoods. Taxes are driving people out. We can't afford to bring in more people. Industrial is very important. Our commercial tax base is only around 5%.

(Alex Bagnall) I think the zoning bylaw is working exactly as intended. It encourages 1--2 family homes, not multi-family housing. It's a structural inequity that causes race and class segregation. In 2010, Arlington voted 2:1 to keep 40B in place, so there is interest in affordable multifamily housing.

(Steve Revilak) 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.

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 masters 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.

(Don Seltzer) The town's outreach efforts were limited last year. Someone always asked about the schools and the answer was always "we don't know. The town hired a consultant that said students aren't expensive. Using the marginal cost for education is wrong. The school budget doesn't pay for retirement or school buildings. 600 new students came into our schools during the last few years. We had to construct two elementary school additions and re-open the Gibbs school. What will happen if we add more housing? Meeting the Metro Mayor's coalition goals will bring 1,500 new students into the schools. It's time to bring the finance committee into the discussion.

(Mark Rosenthal) Thanks for talking about making it possible for people to stay in their homes. We haven't done commercial development. The assistance programs for the elderly are unacceptable. 5-6% of our tax base comes from commercial property, and that's very low. 94% of the burden falls on homeowners. In the era of Amazon, we shouldn't be thinking about storefronts. We should be thinking about other forms of businesses, like startup incubators.

(Patricia Worden) I'm grateful for the ARB's comments. Do you have plans to deal with residents being evicted and new school students?

(Roderick Holland) If a special town meeting is the mechanism for floating the next set of zoning changes, please schedule it many months in advance, to ensure that town meeting members can be there. The outreach for the density proposals was pretty impressive. There was lots of engagement and lots of what-if questions that couldn't be answered. We would really benefit from having the internal capacity for modeling and simulation.

(Anne Thompson) I teach real estate finance at MIT and I'm a housing expert. I have a database of 1.6M parcels in five counties around Boston. We need a better commercial tax base, and the ability to have a different tax rate for commercial properties. New homes in Cambridge average 800 square feet each; they're not family housing. I know how to model data and can look at things in an economic way. I'd like to help.

(John Gersh) Thanks for this forum. I'm thrilled to hear about affordable housing. It feels like we're under the specter of the Metro Mayor's coalition's goals. We're the 12th densest community in Massachusetts. We can't add 6,802 housing units with our infrastructure. Put Arlington ahead of the regional needs.

(Beth Melofchik) I was horrified by last years forum. I was horrified by the methods and the message. We only have a 6% commercial tax base in Arlington. I'm pleased by Mr. Watson's comments. Don't turn the industrial zones into lab space. I like holistic viewpoints. There's a single room occupancy building in my neighborhood. Be green. We're working on a natural gas ban article for this spring. I'm disappointed that green features were pulled out of the high school. Let's save the tree canopy and let's not move veterans park.

(Carl Wagner) I want to thank the ARB and Select Board. Unfortunately, something from December 2018 still concerns me. The density articles were put forward by unelected officials. That's not right, and we must express this by voting for different select board members. Voters are important, not outside parties. Put Arlington first. Don't wreck the town we moved in to.

(Pam Hallet) This is a wonderful gathering. Affordable housing is a crisis for many people. Many of the people that come to the Housing Corporation of Arlington have lived here for many years. We provide housing and social services. The transfer tax is a wonderful concept. Housing values have increased dramatically, with no work on behalf of the home owners. We've been talking with folks at the state house about a transfer tax.

(Susan Stamps) I appreciate this meeting. The tree committee was brought into the process late last year, and I'm glad to see we're looking for public input. We should have a committee that identifies committees that are impacted by development. Like the tree committee, the disability commission, groups with environmental view, and representatives of the builders. Please include more visuals in the presentation.

(Joanne Preston) Last spring, I attended all of the ARB meetings, and I didn't see any of the residents that would be most affected -- those living in our old apartment buildings. If we rezone, those buildings will get torn down. 50% of the people who live in those apartments weren't born in this country. They're difficult to reach, because they work in the evenings. Reaching them should be a priority.

(Aram Hollman) Thanks both groups. He favors the transfer tax, but is concerned about the schedule. He feels it's a protracted schedule, and another attempt at upzoning. Arlington should not be converting commercial and industrial land to residential. The Legacy has no affordable units, because it was built before we had inclusionary zoning. Of the 1000 housing units created during the last 20 years, very few are affordable. We need commercial and industrial spaces, which require less services. I urge you to keep the industrial spaces, and to make Arlington a job center.

(Karen Kelleher) Thanks for this forum. I think of this as a reset. It's about our values and who gets to live here. Homeowners have benefited from rising home prices, but now we have an affordability crisis. I'm hearing unanimity in that we need to address the cost of housing. Building affordable housing is expensive, especially in a hot market. We'll have to make some hard choices. We may need to talk about density and revenue, making tradeoffs and being creative. There are really only two ways to create affordable housing: subsidies and the market.

(Len Diggins) Transportation affects the affordability of living. Not needing a car reduces the cost of living, and might allow someone to put up solar panels. With respect to the idea of Arlington first, we can't isolate ourselves from the rest of the region. If we help lift up the region, we lift ourselves up too.

Future Meetings. The ARB may join the Select Board's goal setting meeting. This will be held sometime after the election -- perhaps in June or July.