For town housing, move beyond critique to solutions
Steve Berczuk provides his view of the draft update of the five-year Arlington Housing Plan, to be reviewed Monday, Jan. 24, by the Redevelopment Board.
Recent drafts of the housing plan have met with critical responses. While acknowledging that the plan has important goals, they consist almost entirely of problems with the plan, without suggesting improvements. Typical of this is Don Seltzer’s recent column. It raises some concerns, but neither accurately represents what the plan says nor proposes ways to address the concerns. Finding flaws in a proposed solution to a difficult problem is easy. Proposing options requires more work.
No plan will be ideal If you share the goal of finding ways that Arlington can do its part to address the housing crisis, the way to make progress is to identify opportunities for improvement or even questions to ask. As a moderator of the Arlington Neighbors for More Neighbors Facebook Group for the last couple of years, I’ve learned a few key things: Housing policy is complex, housing demand is regional, there is always more to learn and the best way to solve problems is through open, challenging, curious, dialogue that incorporates facts and critical thinking in addition to emotion and anecdote.
Checking some facts
Useful critique should also keep the facts straight. For example, Seltzer claims that the plan doesn’t address infrastructure issues, in particular calling out the potential growth in school population should we add housing stock. There are discussions of household size (and school-age population) throughout the document. Adding housing could possibly lead to more families moving to town – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but those families might not cause the schools to over extend their capacity based on the projections in the housing plan. That conversation can help us understand how our values and goals align.
The question of how we want to support housing opportunities for families with children versus other groups is an important one, and ties into the question of what mix of housing we should add. The type of housing we add could also influence the makeup of the population. For example, if we added more one-bedroom apartments, or more senior housing, that would not add to the school population, but would affect the community dynamic, of which schools are an important part. Also, the enrollment projections in the report suggest that we do have enough capacity in our schools.
A related issue that critics of the plan neglect: the lack of options in our housing stock. Arlington is predominantly zoned for single-family housing, which means that it’s not easy to build multifamily housing or apartments. This exacerbates the housing shortage, as people who choose to rent or purchase in town end up with larger houses than they need or want.
It is true that universal R2 zoning and more multi-unit apartment buildings won't address the same affordability needs that subsidized options, such as 40B, will. Yet these options will fill an important gap and make it easier for people to stay in town if they want or need to downsize their housing.
Seek R2 changes that don't seem problematic
The plan points out ,“Many Arlington residents seem resistant to the idea that their own Zoning Bylaw acts as an impediment to affordable housing,” so ruling out zoning changes that could ease the situation doesn’t help. If you oppose town wide R2 zoning, discuss the types of changes that don’t seem problematic. Housing-stock diversity (people living in two bedrooms when they really wanted one) and capacity are also part of the housing crisis in the region, in addition to affordability (low and market rate). And each of these is affected by zoning.
Another recurring theme in these conversations is people conflating or confusing the various meanings of affordability. This is understandable because “affordable” means different things in different contexts and the policy definition doesn't always match the common language one. But this difference in understanding could be an opening for a solution oriented discussion rather than a way to shut down debate.
The housing plan is written in the context of tools that are available to the town: Zoning changes, and state and federal subsidies. These may not currently be enough, so perhaps we can discuss other solutions, which could range from lobbying the state for more funding, fund-raising for more housing options managed by nonprofit entities, etc. I also believe that we can identify more creative solutions.
We’ve heard about the criticisms about the gaps, and sometimes the feared consequences of the housing plan. We’ve not heard a lot about actionable ways to address those gaps. I hope that further discussions of the housing plan include not only objections, but solutions (if you have them) or questions (if you don’t know a solution). Just Saying No won’t address the issues. If you are really interested in helping the town (and the region) address these issues, talk with each other, and consider the opportunities you have to learn about possible solutions to this complex problem.
Updated town draft housing plan
This viewpoint was published Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.
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Grant, up until your final snide comment I am in general agreement with you. Impact of new housing upon public school enrollment is highly dependent on the type of housing. And that is why I fault this housing plan for not even making an attempt at this analysis. DHCD requires that this sort of analysis be part of an acceptable housing plan. And no, that does not mean that 'schooling children is a bad thing'. That means that responsible planning requires that we anticipate future school enrollment and plan for how to manage it, particularly if we need to build more classrooms.
I challenge this Plan's simple reliance on the 2015 McKibben forecast. That forecast has proven to be so badly off in its basic assumption about Arlington's total population growth that it would be reckless to accept its other findings without a closer review.
My suggested Rule of Thumb is just that, a crude first approximation of the expected increase in public school enrollment from an increase. All of the factors that you cite are valid, and that is why a serious analysis that breaks down these factors needs to be part of this planning effort.
Also take note that the recent MBTA mandate requires that Arlington implement density zoning changes in east Arlington that specifically exclude age restrictive senior housing or small studio or 1 bedroom apartments that are not suitable for families with children. These are all important factors that should be part of any useful housing plan.
I will point out Don that your own math around school enrollment that really don't justify the hyperbole of claiming that a new elementary is around the corner. Your calculation around housing units tied to new kids is unexplained, but I assume you just divided town units by current enrollment? That is not a robust assumption - new kids would depend on the housing mix added, not the current state with dominant R0/1/2 housing. Al Tosti, former head of FinCom, has stated that developments of primarily 1-bedrooms are benign, in his opinion. I assume that would apply to senior housing as well. We've seen new apartments buildings be built as 1-bedroom, and the Thorndike Place development is senior housing - likely not many kids coming from there.
Second, any new kids would not just be elementary students - they would be spread across 13 grades - K-12 - which means the high Schools, which have new capacity coming online, and the middle schools, which just added the Gibbs to handle the 6th grade, would take many of them. Many also would go to private - about 1/3 of the kids in my neighborhood do not attend APS. They go to the International School, Lesley Ellis, etc. So the hits to the elementaries would likley be quite a bit lower. Combine that with a projected downward trend in enrollment, it doesn't then lead to strong case for your warning of a $50M new elementary.
So I believe you might take a personal lesson from your charge that the report falls short in trying not to repeat that in your own work.
My comment about facts was more about the followup analysis, rather than whether the report met state guidelines, and I didn't check on the state rules for the draft report. In M. Seltzer's article, which proceeds with the argument that more housing
leads to the need for more schools, and that further schooling more children is a bad thing. If the data in the report are missing I don't see how the housing implies more schooling costs is supported. Whether providing education to more students is something we value as a town is an important conversation to have, and cost is part of the conversation. This would be good context to add to any follow up on what M Seltzer and others thing would comprise a better plan that addresses the concerns in the article.
**Note** noticed that the link I submitted, which pointed to the plan was changed in editing. The link should be
Mr. Berczuk accuses me of not getting the facts straight when I wrote that the draft Plan does not meet the State requirement "At a minimum, the Plan must examine...The capacity of the infrastructure to accommodate future growth, including plans to ensure that future needs are met."
I stand by this statement. This requirement is stated plainly by the DHCD, and there are no such analyses in this planning document. There isn’t even an estimate of growth. All that we see under the headings for infrastructure are filler material, describing what we have now in some detail, but no insight into what level of growth can be handled or how it can be handled.
Furthermore, this draft Plan relies entirely upon the six year old McKibben forecast for school enrollment. As I pointed out, the latest Census figures show that we have already reached a population of 46,308 that the McKibben forecast predicted we would not achieve until well into the next decade.
This Plan is full of interesting data about Arlington's demographics today, but it badly falls short in meeting the State's minimum requirement of planning for future impact of growth. It neither attempts to estimate growth nor does it address how we handle the infrastructure impact, particularly on our schools. It simply says that town officials should monitor the situation.
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