A lottery next month for apartments designated as “affordable” in Arlington is expected to draw many more applications than there are available spots. But families with children may have an especially tough time snagging an affordable unit that meets their needs.
The vast majority of affordable units at Arlington 360, a hilltop development opening at the site of the former Symmes Hospital, have two or fewer bedrooms. And the situation is similar at other rental complexes in area communities.
Only four out of 26 affordable apartments at Arlington 360 have three bedrooms, according to SEB LLC, a Brighton-based company that runs affordable-housing lotteries and provides other consulting services for developers.
At Concord Mews in Concord, six of 88 affordable units have three bedrooms, according to SEB. And of 60 affordable apartments at Alta Legacy Farms in Hopkinton, none have three bedrooms.
Most of the apartments at the three developments are offered at market rates, and Arlington 360 has also set aside some units for middle-income households.
Housing advocates say developers seeking to build rental housing often face resistance to larger apartments, because cities and towns want to limit the number of schoolchildren in the complexes, thus also limiting additional strains on municipal services. More bedrooms mean more children, the thinking goes, and more children mean more dollars are needed to run the local schools.
“Generally, the towns prefer if developers just have studios, one- and-two bedrooms,” said Brian Engler, vice president at SEB. “There’s just not that much three-bedroom affordable housing in the state.”
Engler said that, in apartment complexes with affordable units, the three-bedroom units are usually the first to lease.
“Families generally need at least two, sometimes three bedrooms,” said Brenda Clement, executive director of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a statewide coalition of public agencies, private developers and nonprofit organizations. “The demand is certainly high and growing for family rental units.”
One development that could help meet that demand is a proposed expansion of Hancock Village in south Brookline. Of the 192 new apartments called for in the latest plan, 28 would have three bedrooms and 28 would have four bedrooms. Altogether, 39 units would be set aside as affordable housing, including 20 percent of the three- and four-bedroom apartments, said Chestnut Hill Realty consultant Margaret Murphy.
The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency determined this month that the plan is eligible to be developed under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable-housing law, a determination that could allow the project to move forward despite opposition from neighbors and town officials.
Murphy, who said she has worked on dozens of Chapter 40B projects across the state during the last 20 years, said while developers may propose three- and four-bedroom affordable units, communities frequently have concerns about an influx of more school-age children, and will ask the developers not to include larger apartments.
Murphy said Chestnut Hill Realty is proposing the three- and four-bedroom affordable units at its Hancock Village property because the need is so great.
“Everyone in the affordable housing world knows that there’s a huge need for three bedrooms, but there is a lot of push-back from the towns,” Murphy said.
The mix of apartment sizes at Arlington 360 dates to when a previous developer was proposing to build condominiums on the Symmes site, said Sandi Silk, vice president of development for Newton-based Jefferson Apartment Group, one of two partners in the current project. But, Silk said, she regularly hears about communities pushing for smaller apartments.
“You get pressure to minimize the number of three-bedroom units, because of the impact on schools,” Silk said.
The lottery for the affordable units in Arlington will take place Nov. 18.
“I think there’s a conflict between the town’s desire to limit schoolchildren and the affordability motivation,” said Adelaide Grady, a senior vice president at Wood Partners, the developer of the Alta Legacy Farms complex in Hopkinton.
Mark Leone, property manager of the Concord Mews complex, said the low number of three-bedroom units has not meant fewer families with children are moving in there. He estimated that there are more than 100 school-age children in the complex.
“We have an incredibly high demand for people to be here, because people want their children to be in that school system,” Leone said. “I’ve heard people willing to forgo a little elbow room if it means their kids can attend these schools.”
Thomas Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, said a community receives the same “credit” for a studio apartment and a three-bedroom unit when the state counts its affordable housing. The tally is significant under Chapter 40B, which gives developers greater leeway in communities where affordable units represent less than 10 percent of the total housing stock.
Callahan said communities often overestimate the cost of having larger apartments.
“Inevitably, the impacts on the schools are a lot less than people fear,” he said. “When you think about it, even if it’s a sizable development, people don’t all move in with kindergartners. You’re adding one or two kids per class, and that’s not forcing the school system to hire more teachers.”
The size of affordable apartments is one of several potential obstacles renters face when signing up for slots.
Housing advocates say some people simply do not know about affordable-housing opportunities, and only a narrow subsection of the population qualifies for them.
The housing is typically reserved for people making less than 80 percent of the area’s median income, but families must also meet certain income minimums. Also, while the rents for the affordable units are lower than those of other apartments in the same complex, they can often be higher than rents elsewhere.
These hurdles mean that affordable units sometimes take months to fill up. Although there’s expected to be a line of people waiting to rent in Arlington, lotteries for affordable units in some other communities have received far fewer applications than available spots.
A lottery for apartments at Alta Legacy Farms was canceled this summer due to a lack of interest, although Engler said he expects the complex to fill up within 18 months.
A single renter at Alta Legacy Farms must make at least $45,000 a year to qualify for an affordable one-bedroom apartment, but can’t make more than $47,150 — a narrow eligibility band that pushes out both low-income renters and many people with professional jobs. The Concord Mews complex had to lower its minimum income to find enough renters for its one-bedroom affordable apartments.
Callahan said the rents on apartments designated as “affordable” do not seem affordable to everyone. A discounted one-bedroom at Alta Legacy Farms rents for $1,255 a month, similar to the rates for affordable units at other area developments. At Arlington 360, the rent would be $1,243, and at the Concord Mews complex, a one-bedroom goes for $1,245 a month.
“If you’ve been getting a good deal, if you’ve been living with a relative for $400 a month, unless you’ve been really disciplined in saving the rest of that, most households can’t absorb that type of payment shock,” Callahan said.
The rents are somewhat higher for affordable three-bedroom apartments: $1,518 at Arlington 360, and $1,487 at Concord Mews.