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More housing in Arlington is needed for ordinary folks

Charley Blandy of Lombard Terrace advocates for an Arlington in which all who wish can find a home.

lettersWhy do we need meaningful MBTA zoning in Arlington? We have a housing shortage; the state says we have to, to follow our stated principles; so that people, businesses and trees can live here.

Housing is scarce and expensive here; our median sales price just topped $1 million. If you’re an Arlington homeowner, you’re probably aware that your assessment has increased quite a bit over the past 10 to 20 years. Maybe you’re relieved. You might take out a home-improvement loan based on that valuation. And your young-adult kids might be wondering how they can live in town, if not in their old rooms. You might wonder where you’ll live if you want to downsize.

And you may look at your beautiful home, and you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here? What made your house more valuable? Was it new “luxury” housing? Greedy developers?

No. New buildings don’t cause prices to rise. To blame new development for unaffordable housing is, as the economics writer Noah Smith says, blaming umbrellas for the rain – confusing cause and effect. New development follows high prices; it doesn’t cause them. The proof is in your assessment.

‘Out-of-whack, nonresponsive’ market alleged

No, the rent is too high because of our out-of-whack, non-responsive regional housing market. We haven’t built much housing regionally, and wealth from our nearby knowledge industries sloshes ruthlessly around the real-estate market. Arlington is a pleasant place to live, and it’s convenient to these industries on 128 and Kendall Square.

Housing scarcity and income inequality have created a vicious double whammy. In Arlington alone, we can’t do much about wealth inequality; but, regionally, acting in cooperation with other municipalities, we can act on housing supply. That’s why the state passed the MBTA Communities Act, or 3A – to encourage “missing middle,” modestly sized housing units.

Will new development make housing cheaper? The short answer is yes. The longer, more tedious and less satisfying answer is yes; possibly but not definitely immediately; regionally; and over a long period of time.

The Boston Foundation’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2022 puts it bluntly: “A broad array of evidence – including from this year’s Core Metrics – shows that the region desperately needs more subsidized and market-rate housing.” (Yes, we badly need that subsidized housing too.)

About things ‘the way they always have been’

The state was forced to act because 170-plus cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts were not allowing more housing on their own – collectively driving up prices. Those towns might have wanted to keep things “the way they always have been.” Or they might each have thought, perhaps correctly, that acting alone wouldn’t moderate costs generally. Now, under the MBTA Communities Act, we’re all in the same boat, rowing the same direction.

Even ultra-locally, new housing has been found to take some puff out of the market bubble. Scholars are always looking for a way to cleanly test a hypothesis: One clever researcher in San Francisco observed the local effects on rent from new buildings that were built after a fire on the old location. She found that within 100m of new construction, rents fell by 2 percent. The new places took pressure off the surrounding areas, a widely observed effect that scholars call “filtering.” What some folks call “natural affordability” is just old market-rate housing, enabled by new market-rate housing.

And due to Arlington’s current inclusionary zoning rules, more building could yield more affordable units. In Arlington, one subsidized unit is required for every six units built (i.e., 15 percent). The latest proposed map adds an incentive: If a developer offers more affordable units beyond the minimum percentage, it could build an extra floor.

Remembering those ‘who aren’t in the room’

Without new housing, buyers might buy an existing apartment, condo-converted and granite-counter-topped. And the folks who otherwise would have lived in that apartment? They move someplace they can afford, and maybe they never consider Arlington at all. And Arlington becomes a class monoculture. People who work in trades, at Dunks, pump gas, cut hair, take care of little kids, artists, musicians, town employees – they’re out of luck. They can’t be our neighbors.

So let’s remember the people who aren’t in the room, who won’t be in Town Hall in October or filling up the A-list or emailing Town Meeting members – because they can’t afford to live in Arlington at all. When we restrict new housing, we’re saying, Sorry, we’re full up here. We’re saying that even to folks who grew up here but couldn’t stay. (I have examples, and I’ll bet you do, too.)

Think globally, act locally, a wise tote-bag once said. With the MBTA Communities Act, we are not alone in having to re-think our notion of a thriving community. Let’s not go for weak half-measures and a get-me-over, ineffectual MBTA Communities map. Let’s think about the kind of community we want to have –equitable, green, inclusive, thriving – and let’s map for that.

This letter was published Friday, Sept. 8, 2023.

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