Housing Plan Community Forum - Jun 9th, 2021

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Meeting held via remote participation. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/27230/18.

Arlington's Housing Production Plan was approved by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) in 2016. These plans are good for five years, which means that ours is due for an update. The update is being done in with assistance from RKG Associates and the Horsley Witten Group. Tonight's forum is the first public event in this effort.

(Jenny Raitt, Planning Director) Ms. Raitt provides an introduction. Arlington's Master Plan includes a housing element, and the first recommendation was to create a housing production plan (HPP). The plan was created in 2016 and this is an effort to update it. There are different, but related, planning efforts happening in town. These include the Net Zero Action Plan and the Sustainable Transportation Action Plan. Although they are separate plans, the efforts are integrated.

(Judi Barrett, RKG) Ms. Barrett explains that that RKG and Horsley-Witten are working on the HPP update. She starts with a series of polls for the meeting participants:

  • 90% of tonight's participants live in Arlington.
  • 45--54 is the largest age group in attendance
  • 86% of participants own their own home
  • Most participants have lived here for 21--30 years
  • 96% of attendees are interested in receiving email updates on this effort

Ms. Barrett shows a project timeline. We're very early in this process, and hope to have the work completed in November. Afterwards, the plan would still need approval from DHCD. The plan should be equitable and discourage affordable housing from being concentrated in any particular area. The plan will include details of housing need, and the number of units to be created. There will also be demographic and market research.

RKG conducted a set of interviews, and present a few slides to cover what the interview participants said.

People move to Arlington because it's close to Cambridge and Boston, and has good schools.

Arlington has changed over time. It's become less economically diverse. There have been many home renovations and teardowns. The town has become more economically similar.

There are needs for more moderate-income housing, deeply affordable housing, starter homes, missing middle housing, family condos, co-housing, and congregate housing.

There's not enough of a safety net.

People need lessons in this history of housing and zoning policy (i.e., how they were used for discriminatory purposes).

During the interviews, people talked about challenges, like infill development, teardowns, and redevelopment. 15% of the town lies in a flood zone. 11% is water and open space. There are several brownfield (old industrial) sites, but strong bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The cost of construction has been rising over the last ten years. Job growth in the region has outpaced housing growth.

There are opportunities for residential-over-commercial mixed use, but Arlington's zoning and permitting processes make this a challenge.

Arlington's zoning is complex, and there's little opportunity to build 3+ unit buildings. Many things require special permits, the minimum lot requirements are larger than many lots, there's a 35' height limit in much of the town, and off-street parking requirements. Interviewees also felt there was a need to balance new commercial and industrial development with new residential.

Arlington's zoning is designed to be more suburban, and the regulations make it difficult to develop along the corridors. The environmental design review process adds time, cost, and uncertainty to projects. Arlington has inclusionary zoning (aka affordable housing requirements), but they've only produced 62 units in 20 years (three more units are currently in the construction pipeline).

At this point, the meeting moves into breakout groups. There will be a series of three 20-minute group discussions.

(Note: these breakout groups were more conversational, and my notes are spotty in places. I basically wrote down things that caught my interest).

Breakout Group #1.

One of the questions to our group is whether Arlington should consider additional housing models, like congregate or co-operating housing.

We should be willing to try anything reasonable, but the ideas should be applicable to a wide area. The vast majority of town is zoned for single-and two family houses, and that really limits the opportunities for more multi-family housing.

The R4 district has a single-room occupancy building. I'm open to other options, but I don't want the industrial zones cannibalized for housing. There's no acknowledgment of how much green space a community requires for its well-being. Don't build housing on parks or recreation land.

Congregate and co-housing might seem okay, but lower income people are often shoveled in there. In the COVID pandemic, the largest mortality groups were people living in congregate housing. Millennials have a big housing need, and they're also saddled with a lot of college debt. There's bias in these surveys, and many of the people here tonight are the same ones that show up at other meetings about housing.

There's an acknowledgment that the usual suspects tend to show up for these events, and it's challenging to bring people in.

Why did you silence people who submitted comments, by not not presenting all of them? You should present comments from the most marginalized voices first. I'm not willing to sacrifice commercial space for moderate-income or market rate housing.

Breakout Group #2.

One of the questions is "where should new housing be built".

Arlington has older apartment buildings that are naturally affordable. They should be preserved. Housing has to serve people, and not developer needs.

We won't have new housing without redevelopment. It's more important to look at our existing parcels, and ask "what could be built here". Figure out what people would be willing to accept, and go with that. If that means more small pillbox apartments, then great, let's figure out how to build more pillboxes.

We should pursue a strategy of "yes, and, and, and, and". There are a lot of housing needs. Those older apartments buildings do create an opportunity for income-restricted housing. However, income restrictions could displace some of the people who are living there, and there's been concerns about displacement in the past. We should maximize subsidies and try to attract developers that focus on affordable housing. We need to give them places to build where they won't lose money. Like it or not, economics are important. If you don't give developers the ability to make some profit, they aren't going to build anything, and you're needs aren't going to get met.

We should give more assistance to the Arlington Housing Authority. They're in danger because of rising taxes. People move out of Arlington because the taxes are too expensive, and they go to places like Woburn. I'd like to see the housing authority buy properties and renovate them.

The ability to age in place is critical to a community. It allows people to keep in touch with their relatives, family, and friends.

The problem is high taxes, the bloated bureaucracy in town hall, and the fact that people keep voting for overrides. Arlington spends too much money.

I'd like to focus on the other side of taxes. Arlington has very little new growth, and we're consistently well below the state average. There are historic reasons for that. Right now, mansionization is probably our best bet for new tax revenue: take a house and replace it with something that's worth twice as much. That doubles the tax revenue, without changing the number of households or the cost of services. I'd prefer to see more new growth that's a combination of commercial and residential. But I'd like to see that in areas where it's currently not allowed. We can plan for both of these things together.

Breakout Group #3.

I'd like to see us allow more types of housing. Today, you can build a large single-family home by right. Some of these are large enough to be three- or four-plexes, and I'd like there to be options for building more of that kind of missing middle housing.

Following on the previous speaker's comments, maybe we need more R4 districts, more townhouses, and more types of housing.

I'm concerned about East Arlington, especially the way people redevelop properties and put in large driveways. Open space is becoming an issue. (There's a side conversation in the chat about the need for parking reform, and fewer parking requirements. The idea seems popular.)

I just read the 2016 housing production plan, and it seems like the goal is to take Arlington and make it more dense. Why are we trying to make Arlington more dense?

There's a regional need for more housing, but more housing means more density. Density has to be part of the discussion.

There's a moral imperative here. Arlington isn't the only community with a housing problem, and we have an obligation to do our fair share to address it. It's not fair to say "this is Boston's problem" or "this is Cambridge's problem". It affects us all.