Zoning Article Q&A Session - Apr 17th, 2019

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A group of us held a zoning Q & A session in the basement of the Senior Center. Pam Hallet and I co-facilitated, Barbara Thornton took notes on poster paper in front of the room, and Len Diggins recorded the event for ACMi. Erin Zwirko of the Planning Department and Eugene Benson of the ARB were on hand to answer questions. About 35--40 people attended.

This meeting summary is mainly drawn from Ms. Thornton's notes, what I remember, and the few bits and pieces I jotted down. There's also some degree of reflection and editorializing.

We posted an agenda and a code of conduct (i.e., be polite, be civil) in front of the room. Ms. Hallet welcomed the group and went over the code of conduct.

I ran through the list of warrant articles, giving 1--2 sentence summaries of each. I asked which articles attendees wanted to discuss. There were two: Article 16 (Affordable housing) and Article 11 (Reduced Height Buffer Area).

I provided an overview of Article 16, similar to what I've given at previous meetings this week. Then, I start taking stack.

One attendee gives an emotional plea against greater density in the town. He says there's not enough parking in town, there are problems with absentee landlords, and rents are rising too much, and too fast. He thinks it's more important to do something about parking and traffic, and to install a crosswalk where the Minuteman Bikeway crosses Lake Street.

Someone expresses concern over mixed-use development. They're worried we won't be able to get tenants for new commercial spaces.

Someone says that the town needs rent control, and more protections for Arlington tenants. (Unfortunately, that's not something we can do. In the mid-1990's the Commonwealth passed a ballot initiative called the Massachusetts Rent Control Prohibition Act, aka MGL Ch 40P. The act prohibits municipalities from passing involuntary rent control ordinances.)

Another resident wants to see more trees and climate resiliency.

Ms. Hallet talks about the financial challenges of building affordable units. The Housing Corporation of Arlington builds 100% affordable housing, but they cannot provide for all of the town's affordable housing needs -- there just isn't enough money to do that. The average 100% affordable housing project needs around seven sources of outside funding.

A resident states that multi-family housing is more green. If people can live close to where they work, then they'll drive less. If people have to go way out into the suburbs to afford housing, they'll have to drive more.

There's a question about whether housing redevelopment could increase evictions in Arlington. (I think the general concern revolved around taking older apartment buildings which might be in better or worse shape, and replacing them with new buildings. New apartment buildings will be in better condition, and therefore demand higher rents.)

There's a discussion about gentrification. One attendee lives in a three-bedroom apartment with two roommates, and their rent is $3,000/month. The landlord renovated the apartment before they moved in, which means their rent is probably higher than the previous tenants. The attendee believes that gentrification is already taking place, whether we've noticed it or not. Another attendee rents a two-bedroom apartment, and his rent is $2,000/month.

One attendee wants the town needs to perform traffic studies before allowing more residential development.

We discuss tools available to encourage affordable housing production. Inclusionary zoning (like Article 16) is one option. An attendee suggests imposing a 1% transfer tax on real estate, and using the proceeds to fund affordable housing. Mr. Benson states that we'd need the state legislature to pass enabling legislation for such a tax to be possible. Accessory dwelling units are another option (though we really don't discuss the ADU article).

There are more comments on the value of usable open space, the impacts to schools and traffic, and about landlords who renovate apartments in order to raise the rent.

An attendee talks about the consequences of doing nothing, and going along with the market. As prices rise, we risk losing Arlington's economic diversity.

Another attendee wants us to learn from Cambridge, Somerville, and MIT. She talks about tax revenue from new development, and the increased cost of services coming from higher school enrollments. There's more discussion about kids, schools, and what types of housing encourage or discourage families with children. Ms. Thornton writes "Should we keep out kids?" on the notepad and the room breaks into laughter.

There's discussion about the cost of making changes now vs the cost of waiting. Arlington could lose some state grant money if the town doesn't produce enough new housing.

Next, we talk about height buffers (Article 11). The article doesn't change the buffer areas, but it gives the ARB the ability to reduce them if an applicant shows negative impact due to shadows or glare. John Worden believes the article should include the language "shadow study". Mr. Benson asks Mr. Worden how the ARB would make a negligible impact determination without a shadow study. Mr. Worden still wants to add that language to the article.

Finally, a resident talks about the importance of maintaining income diversity in Arlington. She owns a two-family house, lives in one unit, and rents the other. Her tenants recently had to move because they could no longer afford to live here. She's concerned that she might have to move herself.

It's 9:00pm at this point, so we end the meeting and break down the room.