scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Arlington considers zoning changes to boost affordable housing

Planning officials in Arlington are recommending zoning changes that would allow developers to build bigger units in smaller spaces in return for additional affordable housing.

The proposed bylaws, which need a two-thirds majority, will go before Town Meeting starting Monday, April 22.

Jennifer Raitt, Arlington’s director of planning and community development, said the so-called density bonus is a common planning tool used by communities to encourage developers to build more affordable housing — something she said is in high demand in Arlington and throughout Greater Boston.

“We need housing to be created for all income levels but particularly middle income to lower income,’’ Raitt said. “We’ve lost a lot of rental housing over the years to various developments. We want to make more permanent affordable housing.’’


She said the changes would be allowed primarily in areas along transportation corridors such as Massachusetts Avenue, Broadway, and Pleasant, Medford, and Mystic streets.

The idea is that developers would be allowed to build taller buildings with less open space and parking, and more units on smaller lot sizes if they agree to build extra affordable housing. The proposal has been endorsed by the Arlington Redevelopment Board.

For example, townhouse structures in one residential zone now require 30,000 square feet in minimum lot area, 2,500 square feet in minimum lot area per unit, and 100 feet of frontage. Under the proposed changes, the density bonus would allow townhouse structures to have 5,000 square feet in minimum lot area, 1,500 square feet in minimum lot area per unit, and 50 feet of frontage.

“We want to incentivize this housing,’’ she said. “It basically says if you do this extra, we will allow you to do that. The word density sounds scary but it’s a typical tool that is commonly used throughout the entire country.’’

But opponents say the proposals would make the town more urban, like Cambridge and Somerville. They are also concerned that the plans are being rushed through without enough vetting.


Resident Carl Wagner, who is part of the group Arlington Residents for Responsible Redevelopment, said he thinks the push is coming from neighboring mayors who are feeling pressure to create more affordable housing.

Wagner, who lost a reelection bid this spring to stay on as a Town Meeting member, worries that people will no longer want to live in Arlington.

“We think adding density to Arlington would be really detrimental,’’ Wagner said. “The process is being rushed through without this body having proper visual studies. It just stinks of a gift to developers.’’

Only about 5 percent of Arlington’s housing is considered affordable, and Raitt said the town has been working on the issue for several years. She said that residents have had input along the way.

“To lean on the process as being bad would be unfair in this case,’’ she said. “I do feel like we’ve had a fair process and that what we are proposing is something that will ultimately benefit the community.’’

Wagner said the group wants Town Meeting to reject the proposals and have a one-year assessment of their impact on the schools, environment, town finances, and essential town services. The results would be submitted to next year’s Town Meeting.

Alexis Smith, a senior regional housing and land use planner with Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said the proposed changes were tailored to help Arlington meet its housing production goals. Smith has been working with Arlington on the proposals.


“There is a housing shortage regionwide and Arlington is doing its part,’’ Smith said. “Arlington is providing options for people who can’t afford to live in a single-family house on one lot.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at