The need for more housing is a national issue. Cities and towns everywhere are dealing with the effects of stagnant and declining wages, the withdrawal of the federal government from housing creation leading to a lack of affordable housing, pressures on services and property taxes, and irreversible changes to communities. Massachusetts is no different, with calls for great increases in housing supply, particularly in the communities close to Boston.

Like many of these communities, Arlington is also dealing with the need for better public transportation, and the lure of our desirability vs. our finite size. We are already the second densest town and the 12th densest overall community in Massachusetts, and none of these issues will be solved by squeezing more people into a town that our Annual Budget describes as “densely populated and fully built-out.” But the Town is considering new Zoning Bylaws that would allow greatly increased density with only minimal increases in our supply of affordable units, no protections for existing residents and businesses at risk of displacement by redevelopment, increased strain on public services, especially our schools, and potential harm to our environment. Despite the defeat of the first round of these proposals at 2019 Annual Town meeting, the Town is forging ahead with plans for the Heights business districts based on these proposals, and promising to bring them back to Town Meeting in 2020, as if residents and Town Meeting members had not spoken.

Visit our Affordability page to learn more about where we stand in terms of creating affordable housing, and why it is the only kind of housing we need.

Scroll down to read FAQs about the situation, and to see what might happen if increased density were allowed.

doesn't our zoning perpetuate exclusionary housing policies?

In the 1930s, the US was experiencing a foreclosure crisis. To avoid extending high-risk loans, the federal government charged the Home Owner's Loan Corporation with creating maps indicating which areas of cities and towns had the lowest likelihood of repaying loans. These maps were based on many biased assumptions, including that minority communities posed the greatest risks to lenders. Minority communities were often surrounded by a red line on these maps. Banks and lenders refused to lend to borrowers within these districts, thereby shutting out minorities from loans and home ownership, and creating the term "redlining" to indicate exclusionary zoning practices.

But unlike some of our neighboring communities, Arlington never had any redlined districts.

Other means, such as restrictive neighborhood covenants, and informal exclusionary practices such as "residential steering," by which prospective minority residents were guided away from more-desirable neighborhoods, were used to exclude Black and other minority residents, but our zoning laws have never been structured to keep out minorities or those with lower incomes.

In fact, our first zoning laws, from the 1920s, had minimal restrictions. They encouraged all sorts of housing growth, as Arlington's population went from less than 30,000 to more than 50,000 in the next 50 years. Much of Arlington's undeveloped land was subdivided into cheap 3,000 or 4,000 square foot lots, and a large proportion of our homes today are still on these small, non-conforming lots that have been grandfathered from pre-1975.

In addition, Arlington has been very welcoming towards immigrants throughout the last century. A remarkable statistic -- 20% of our current population was born overseas!

By the time that more-restrictive zoning laws were enacted here in 1975, Arlington had experienced most of its growth and development, and the town was almost completely built out.

But even these more-restrictive zoning laws were quite liberal in terms of allowing small, therefore less expensive, lots. Our R1 (single-family) districts have very modest lot size minimums of only 6,000 square feet. In addition, we have created a diverse housing stock, with 55% made up of two-family homes, small garden apartments, and larger high-rise apartment buildings.

Academic studies on more-inclusive zoning propose 4 or more single-family homes per acre as a desireable target. Our zoning allows up to 7.3 single-family homes per acre, almost twice the target. Concord is much more restrictive, only 4.4 homes per acre, and Lincoln is very exclusionary, allowing just 1 home for 2 acres. For multi-family housing, a goal of 10 or more units per acre is proposed. Arlington's multi-family districts start at 15 units per acre and climb to 75 per acre for the densest.

If there were a strong correlation between single-family zoning and racially exclusionary factors, then Arlington would be more racially diverse than Concord and Lincoln. And yet Arlington has a 2.43% African American population, while Concord and Lincoln are 3.81% and 3.98% respectively. There are obviously other more significant forces at work here.

Today, exclusion is perpetuated by a loan industry that continues to deny loans disproportionally to minorities. This report indicates that, in Boston, Black loan applicants are denied at almost three times the rate of white applicants; Hispanic applicants at almost twice the rate of white borrowers. For a deep dive into lending in the Boston area, both federally insured and not, see this report from the Massachusetts Community & Banking Council.

As well, some Realtors are cited as factors in discouraging people of color from looking to own or rent in certain areas. Encouragingly, the National Association of Realtors has recently apologized for this history. But exclusionary practices continue. Online real estate broker Redfin is currently under investigation for "digital redlining," charged with offering fewer and sometime no services to buyers and sellers in minority neighborhoods. And this recently released study from Suffolk University looks at the overwhelming rates at which Black rental applicants in Boston are denied housing by landlords and real estate brokers.

While data specific to Arlington isn’t readily available, it’s likely that similar discrepancies apply here. These are barriers that zoning cannot directly influence.

doesn't increased density create more affordable units?

Some have suggested that to create more affordable housing we should abolish single-family zoning and allow for two units per lot. Rezoning our R1 districts to R2 is a developer's dream: Our inclusionary affordable housing bylaw only kicks in at six units or more, and would not apply to this type of development. Opening up the R1 districts means that developers will target the thousands of smaller, older homes in Arlington that are semi-affordable today. They will be torn down and replaced with boxy duplexes, with each unit costing two to three times as much as the home it replaced. Gentrification and the economic gap in Arlington will only increase.

Arlington already has a diverse housing supply, with 55% multi-family. There is also great diversity within our rental housing, with many modest, "naturally affordable" units in smaller, older buildings, exactly the type that developers target for teardown and replacement with high market rate apartments and condos that reduce our economic diversity.

Many recent studies, created after density bylaws have been in place for a while, are finding that, in fact, more market-rate housing is created, but not more affordable housing. These studies show that inclusionary zoning, aka trickle-down development, provides large benefits for the few, drives up prices for those least able to afford them, and increases the proportion of market rate to affordable housing, displacing residents due to increased housing prices and rising land values and property taxes. Other communities, such as Medford, Newton, and Dedham, are recognizing this, and have instituted moratoriums and delayed large projects until more studies can be done. Locally, Watertown, Somerville, etc. have all seen prices continue to rise even after inclusionary zoning and density bonuses have been tried. Please visit our Affordability page to learn more.

" ... housing markets are not like standard markets, so that aggregate increases in supply do not translate in any straightforward way to decreases in price, because the internal plumbing of housing markets – succession, migration, and occupation patterns – are full of frictions, sunk costs, barriers and externalities that make the effects of aggregate supply increases highly uneven, and in many cases involve unintended or contradictory effects.

" ... we argue that the missing element in determining housing prices and affordability in these cities [mature urban areas] is the structure of jobs and incomes, not aggregate supply policies.

" ... according to Zillow data reported in The Washington Post (August 6, 2018), rents are now declining for the highest earners while continuing to increase for the poorest in San Francisco, Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington, noting that a boom in luxury construction in these areas has failed to ease housing market competition for cheaper properties."

"Marginal reductions in supply constraints alone are unlikely to meaningfully reduce rent burdens. The reason for this result appears to be that rental rates are more closely determined by the level of amenities in a neighborhood than by the supply of housing."

"Inclusionary zoning policies in many cities only apply to construction of larger buildings, with a typical threshold of 5 or 10 units before being subject to the policy. On the one hand, this will tend to discourage construction of larger multi-unit buildings, perhaps a politically appealing aspect of the policy. On the other, it holds the amount of housing affordability support hostage to the decisions of private developers about what they are going to build, and adds another layer of complexity to the zoning code."

"Studies show that market-rate housing development is linked to the mass displacement of neighboring low-income residents (Davidson and Lees 2005, 2010; Pearsall 2010). Such displacement occurs even when low-income housing is not directly demolished and destroyed to make way for new development—because it operates through indirect and exclusionary means, such as “price shadowing” (Davidson and Lees 2005, 2010). Market-rate housing production causes significant price impacts in surrounding neighborhoods, raising area rents and real estate taxes (Oliva 2006; Pearsall 2010; Zuk and Chapple 2016). These price impacts have resulted in higher housing cost burdens for low-income residents, as well as their displacement (Davidson and Lees 2005, 2010; Pearsall 2010)."

What is Arlington's role in the push for more housing in Massachusetts?

Arlington is part of the Metro Mayors Coalition, established by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). The MAPC and the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) are advising the 15 communities of the Metro Mayors Coalition on how to create 185,000 units of housing, as proposed by Boston’s long-range regional plan.

Boston has committed to 69,000 units, leaving the remaining 14 communities to create 8,286 units each, if shared equally. If created in proportion to existing housing, Arlington would need to build 6,800 units.

We could see a 30 - 40% increase in housing units, with corresponding population growth. But even the Metro Mayors Coalition study on regional housing issues says that achieving their housing supply goal is not likely to reduce housing prices, only eventually stop the rise.

2019 Annual Town Meeting saw the withdrawal of the Arlington Redevelopment Board's recommendation of its own suite of Articles to advance this goal, along with their recommendation of No Action, after widespread understanding by Town Meeting Members and other residents that they opened the door to much greater density, with no reciprocal benefits for Arlington.

Many of the same proposals as contained in these Articles are still being used to promote the Arlington Heights Neighborhood Action Plan, and to guide consideration of projects currently before the Arlington Redevlopment Board.

Arlington’s Housing Production Plan, an outcome of our Master Plan, also lays out recommendations for housing production, but many are not referenced in these current proposals.

How do we compare to nearby communities?

Within the Metro Mayors Coalition, if Medford, Quincy, Melrose, Newton, and Braintree were to build out to Arlington's density, they would create 110,954 more housing units for the Greater Boston area.

Within the MAPC Inner Core, if Lynn, Medford, Quincy, Melrose, Belmont, Waltham, Newton, Saugus, Needham, and Milton were to build out to Arlington's density, they would create 218,633 more housing units for the Greater Boston area, far exceeding Governor Baker's goal.

As it is, Arlington already allows much greater density for both multi-family and single-family housing than many nearby communities.

What has Arlington done so far to create affordable housing?

We are the 2nd densest town in Massachusetts, and the 12th densest community overall - and we also have more public housing per capita than almost any other community in the state, according to Department of Housing and Community Development figures. We have met the land use percentages of affordable housing required by the 40B statute; we passed an Inclusionary Zoning Bylaw to create affordable units; in addition to affordable housing provided by the Arlington Housing Authority, the Housing Corporation of Arlington is providing almost twice the number of affordable units as those built by private developers; and we have required affordability in perpetuity for those units, unlike many other communities.

What are some of the proposals the Town has been considering?

~ Remove all usable open space requirements from lots, substituting smaller landscaped space and allowing roof and balconies to count towards open space. This would mean much smaller yards, and many fewer trees.

~ Greatly reduce, and in some cases eliminate, front, side, and rear yard setbacks.

~ Increase maximum building heights of up to 5 floors or 60 feet in some cases.

~ Allow taller buildings close to single- and two-family homes, casting neighbors into shade, and obstructing solar panels.

~ Allow density bonuses to all projects, with no requirement for affordable units in projects of fewer than 6 units, the type most likely to be built.

~ Eliminate public hearings and Redevelopment Board review for mixed-use projects such as the Heights hotel, instead allowing them to be built by right.

What parts of Town would be affected?

These proposals target the multi-family districts R4-7, and all business districts. They would affect properties not only in those districts, but neighborhoods and houses abutting these districts, including some of our Historic Districts. Click to see a zoning map

These areas of Arlington Center would be affected:

These areas of East Arlington would be affected:

These areas of Arlington Heights would be affected:

How will we prevent redevelopment, with its higher build costs and higher rental/purchase prices, from displacing our existing residents and businesses?

The proposals target higher density districts, which, although they make up just 5% of the land area, hold over 25% of our population. There has been no discussion about how to prevent the loss of these more-affordable units, or protect their occupants.

" ... just six metro areas—the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Boston, Washington, DC, San Diego, and London—attract nearly half of all high-tech venture capital investment across the entire world. ... growing numbers of economically advantaged knowledge workers are seeing their money eaten up by high housing prices in these cities, and they have started to fear that their own children will never be able to afford the price of entry in them. But it is the blue-collar and service workers, along with the poor and disadvantaged, who face the direst economic consequences. These groups are being driven out of the superstar cities, and they are being denied the economic opportunities, the services and amenities, and the upward mobility these places have to offer. It’s hard to sustain a functional urban economy when teachers, nurses, hospital workers, police officers, firefighters, and restaurant and service workers can no longer afford to live within reasonable commuting distance to their workplaces."

Many of these existing apartment buildings have units that rent for less than HUD-set affordable rates.

These older buildings are prime targets for redevelopment.

How will we handle the need for increased services resulting from this increase in population, which will mean pressures on our schools and higher property taxes?

Residential development often costs more in increased services than it provides in revenues, by as much as a factor of 1:5 to 1. See this meta-study from Yale for more information:

These costs are mainly for education.

Our per student cost has been disputed recently, with some saying that the cost of adding students to our enrollment is $7,297 per student. This figure is based on the Finance Committee's annual base increase for the General Education budget, to which is added an "Enrollment Growth Factor" appropriation. In recent years this has ranged from about $3500 per additional student to over $7000. It is tied to the number of new students, but is not an accurate representation of actual total costs -- it is just an appropriation adjustment to part of the total budget.

It does not include the benefits cost of teachers; the $3,000,000 spent in recent years on modular classrooms for expanded capacity; the millions spent each year paying off the approximately $35,000,000 we have rung up in additional debt for school expansion projects (2017 Thompson addition, 2018 Hardy addition, 2019 Gibbs re-opening); or the $43,000 we spend for each Arlington student who attends Minuteman High School. It does not include upcoming AHS rebuild debt, and it ignores the very real fiscal threat of a new elementary school, which will be required by a rising student population.

When these elements are accounted for, we arrive at a more accurate cost per student of $14,594, as stated in the Arlington Public School report to Town Meeting. But even this is just the state's accounting of our average operating cost per student. We need to bring in the Finance Committee and the Capital Planning Committee to help figure out what the true number is.

As an example of what this means for our revenues vs. expenditures, just look at the numbers for one large apartment complex here:

It has 119 units, and is assessed at $41,000,000

In 2018 it paid annual real estate taxes of $470,000

It sends 40 pupils to APS, at a cost of $14,500K each = $580,000

Of the $124M Arlington raises in property taxes, only 5.65% is from commercial or industrial. 94.35% of the burden is on residential properties. Among the 15 communities in the Metro Mayors Coalition, the average residential burden is 52%. Boston's residential burden is only 40%, and Cambridge is just 35%.

In addition, inclusionary development comes with its own long-term costs to a community, in terms of careful design, implementation, and follow-up study.

"The success of an inclusionary housing ordinance rests on the jurisdiction’s ability to appropriately staff and fund ongoing program administration. Staff must have specialized skills to engage successfully with developers of complex real estate projects. Once inclusionary units are completed, monitoring and stewardship of rental units and especially homeownership units require dedicated staffing on an ongoing basis to ensure that units remain affordable and that the program is meeting its stated goals. ...

Too often, a lack of external compliance requirements results in literally no system for tracking outcome of inclusionary housing programs. ... Inclusionary housing programs cannot be successful unless they are well run and adequately staffed, and they must secure sufficient funding for ongoing administrative costs. Communities also need to be able to track program data in order to evaluate outcomes and make needed changes over time."

"Strong legal mechanisms, carefully designed resale restrictions, pre-purchase and post-purchase stewardship practices, and strategic partnerships are important for ensuring that inclusionary properties continue to be sold or rented at affordable prices, and are not lost due to illegal sales, foreclosure, or lax rental management practices. ...

Despite the acknowledged importance of stewardship, most jurisdictions report having insufficient resources for comprehensive stewardship and many have not adequately planned for long-term monitoring and stewardship of inclusionary housing units. "

Arlington's proposals for increased density rely heavily on mixed-use projects. How will the town attract retail businesses to these ground-floor spaces?

Empty storefronts are proliferating in town. The Town has said nothing about how to attract businesses to fill the ground floors of new mixed-use projects, or prevent existing business from being pushed out as new construction drives up rents. Small businesses provide great value to a community, and are as vulnerable to redevelopment as residents.

"Smaller neighborhood-based businesses not only generate wealth but keep it in circulation longer at the local level. Many owners of smaller businesses see themselves as part of a community. This is the sector that employs local residents and youth, and thereby contributes to family stability. They have partnered with nonprofits and community-based organizations in many ways and on a range of issues. This is a sector that cannot just get up and leave to pursue a cheaper workforce in another part of the world. And they don’t want to because they understand that their economic well-being is directly linked to stable and vibrant neighborhoods. Many small businesses are hurt, or may have to close, when their longtime clienteles are displaced from their homes and communities."

"... more spaces and tenants create more work for the building owner or manager. In a private Facebook group for developers and builder, one planner and architect wrote, 'Less tenants means less operating costs and less people to deal with.' Another member of the group added, 'The cost of separately metering utilities, fire separation protection and the greater cost of build-out are all issues.'

Because many of the typical mixed-used buildings cropping up in cities like mine are being constructed by big developers with deep pockets, they can afford to let commercial spaces sit vacant rather than go through the hassle of creating units for multiple tenants. ... three factors [are] necessary for ground-floor retail to be successful: developers with experience building and managing mixed-use urban retail, an existing and successful retail corridor, and rents that are high enough to sustain the space while still being affordable to businesses.

Meeting those three criteria can be a tall order for many developments, and this is why we see so many empty commercial spaces where mixed-used construction is mandated ... In the end, the vacant storefronts are a bad deal for our neighborhoods though, because we end up with streets pockmarked by vacancies while small business owners who need commercial space can’t afford it."

"Why do landlords leave properties empty when they could be getting rent? ... it's not uncommon for the land underneath a building to be more valuable than the structure itself. If an investor has purchased the land and is holding it for future redevelopment or sale, they might not want the property encumbered with a tenant.

Not all 'mixed-use' developers have the motivation or expertise to build useful and/or manage profitable commercial storefront spaces. Many residential developers are building 'mixed-use' simply because local zoning requires first-floor retail."

Our excess of empty storefronts shows that mixed-use retail spaces are unlikely to be rented, or to contribute to vibrant streetscapes.

New mixed-use projects are built for the rents of the market-rate housing on upper floors.

What are the environmental impacts of allowing greater hard surface development and reducing open space requirements?

The Town has not prepared environmental impact studies of increased development. Increased density worsens our climate resiliency by sacrificing open spaces, trees, and setbacks.

Our tree canopy is under assault from disease, a changing climate, and development. We are losing more trees than we are replacing, and the replacement trees will take many years to reach their mature sizes. Trees provide critical benefits, by reducing energy costs, improving water filtration and absorbtion, performing carbon sequestration, and increasing property values.

The loss of open space and trees increases the heat island effect, by which urban areas are up to 20 degrees hotter than their less-dense surroundings. The Urban Land Institute recently released a study about the effects of extreme heat on urban areas.

"On average, cities are 2°F to 6°F warmer than their surroundings. Because they are covered with sun-absorbing pavement and rooftops, cities can be up to 22 degrees hotter than surrounding areas.

Extreme heat may be a material risk: Moody's, Fitch Ratings and S&P Global warned that credit ratings could take into account cities' strategies for dealing with climate change. That could significantly impact cities' ability to raise capital and finance projects.

Midsized U.S. cities can expect about a 1% GDP loss by 2050 due to increased expenses and reduced growth associated with rising temperatures.

Today, cities have on average 10 more extreme heat events per year than they did in the mid-1950s.

Heat islands cause about 20% of the formation of urban smog, which then traps even more hot air in a city."

Doesn't our Master Plan recommend this path?

The Master Plan "intends to preserve and protect the treasured, attractive qualities that make Arlington great, even when private and public land and development decisions are made in the coming decades." It advocates open space, especially in village centers; preservation of existing neighborhoods; development that integrates historic preservation, zoning, and planning in a manner that respects the historic character and the architectural integrity of the town’s historic neighborhoods and commercial districts. It acknowledges that "Arlington is unique among Boston’s inner suburbs for its diverse housing stock," and that this is a benefit to the Town.

In addition to the Master Plan, we have Design Standards developed in 2015 for our higher-density districts, which clearly indicate resident preferences in terms of scale and size of development, style, and materials. They are apparently being discarded, just 4 years later. Visit our Resources & Contacts page to read the Design Standards.


Garden apartments on Broadway, before and after

Zone: R5

With possible zoning changes to max height, yard setback, and upper story step back, shadows will be approximately 30% longer than currently allowed.

Fresh Pond Seafood

Zone: B4

20% longer shadow cast at noon in December.

Russell Historic District

Zone: R2 and R4

50% longer shadow cast at 9am in December by adjacent B3 district development.

Arlington Heights business districts

Zone: mixed

50% longer shadow cast at noon in December.

Capitol Square, before and after

At proposed max height, and if built to create the "street wall" look favored by proponents of relaxed zoning bylaws.

All our older buildings in the higher-density and business districts are targets for redevelopment.

Increased density is affecting many communities, including Brighton and Watertown, seen here.

But prices are escalating, despite density allowances intended to create more affordable housing.

These kinds of homogenous and generic street walls and canyons won't make Arlington vibrant, and they won't provide affordable units in the numbers we need.

By contrast, town centers like those of Davis Sq. in Somerville, Inman Sq. in Cambridge, Belmont, and Woburn are appealing, with 2 and 3 story human-scale structures.

Our current Zoning Bylaws ALREADY allow this scale and type of development.