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. 

Arlington vua Google Earth: Your Town, Your Future

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 thin​​king 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. 

Do you agree? Disagree? Let the public know by posting your comments in the window below. You must include your full name.