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Why our town needs more density

October 26, 2019

I’ve been trying to imagine how I would make the pitch to our town, Belmont,  (e.g., our town meeting) to increase the number of people who live here.  That is, I’d like to make the case for greater density.  I’ve been trying to get this organized for a while now, I hardly think that this will make the case all by itself, but I’d love it if people at least thought about this, maybe had better ideas.

I think the pitch has several parts — why we need more density, what the obstacles are (there are several), and how we deal with those obstacles, rather than going “oh, shucks, obstacles, guess we can’t do that density thing”. 

To begin, why.  The main reason is that skyrocketing housing prices are socially bad, and given enough time to skyrocket, they start to be bad for the quality of life in town as “normal” people find it harder and harder to live anywhere near by.  And the longer we wait to act, the harder it is to fix the problem.

I take some of my conclusions from my experience living in Silicon Valley, which we left when we felt unable to buy a home (25 years ago) and which has since become even more unaffordable.  I recently learned that our favorite bakery in Palo Alto was closing, not because of high rent like you might normally expect, but because they could no longer hire qualified bakers; none could afford to live a reasonable commuting distance from the bakery.  This could happen here, too, in time.  Another problem is the difficulty that our children will have living anywhere in the area, unless they’re lucky enough to get a very lucrative job with one of the wealthier tech companies or strike it rich at a startup.  That’s how things are in Silicon Valley now; even as a senior employee at one of those wealthy tech companies, I’d be very reluctant to commit myself to a mortgage in Silicon Valley at today’s prices.  For most young people it’s simply impossible. That could happen here, too.  It’s a little harder to imagine this happening if you haven’t seen it happen, but I have seen it happen, I think we should very much take the Silicon Valley experience as something that is possible and should be avoided.

High housing prices are also socially bad.  Inequality is up for various reasons, but a spike in housing prices makes the inequality that much worse; unless you’re very wealthy, you probably have a rotten commute because you cannot live anywhere near your job.  Long commutes are bad for everyone; they’re bad for the children of parents with rotten commutes (who don’t get to see their parents, whose parents burn some of their patience just getting to and from work), they’re bad for the health of the commuters, and they’re bad for everyone who lives near the roads that the commuters drive on.  In Belmont, Cambridge, and Boston, because we lack adequate transit options to affordable suburbs, we suffer from all that traffic.  And of course, rotten commutes in not-electric cars spew pollution and greenhouse gases (electric car market share is about 2% in the US), and rotten commutes tear up our roads and cost money for maintenance, more than is collected from gas taxes and tolls (should we raise those taxes?  Seems like we should, but that also hardly seems fair to all those people forced into long commutes by our choice to let housing prices soar by capping supply).

We can attempt to mitigate cost-of-housing problems by reserving some units for affordable housing, but the higher the price of market-rate housing, the more costly (for someone) those units will be, and we don’t build nearly enough to make a dent in demand.

What these means for Belmont is that the town changes; what once was a town with a solid middle class and even a decently-housed and employed not-so-middle class, becomes instead a town of the very wealthy and the very lucky.  Because we are so adamant about not liking teardown and relatively strict zoning, the configuration of all the houses stays very much the same, but the people living in them are completely different.  I think the people are more important than a particular configuration of houses, and I think the character of the town depends more on the people living in it than on the size and shape of the houses they live in.

There are several obstacles to greater density.  The hardest and most important obstacle is how we handle many more children in our schools.  Belmont’s motto is “town of homes” (whatever that means — town of poor tax base, perhaps?) but in practice what we’re known for, and what drives demand to live here, is the quality of our schools.  Another important problem is how we would deal with additional traffic, but I think this is much more tractable.  A third problem is simply expectations; people assume that if the zoning rules are changed, they’ll be changed in a way that shortchanges them.

Zoning

I don’t think that zoning should be treated as if it were stone tablets handed down from a mountain top, because it’s not — we tweak it every few years, and recent history suggests that if every grandfathered structure in town were replaced with something that could be built by-right, quite a few lots would go vacant, and we’d complain about the ugliness and bulk of most of the rest.   People prefer the look and size of older non-conforming structures to the new ones that conform.  The same seems to be true of Somerville and Cambridge — almost every small residential property in Somerville is grandfathered and non-conforming.  What we actually dislike is change, any change.  

Neighborhoods can change in several ways — a neighborhood can maintain the same sort of people over time (locksmiths, principals, newspapermen, bartenders, electricians) and perhaps get more dense over time, or it can maintain the same density, but as property becomes more expensive, the middle class can no longer afford to buy, and all the new residents look more and more like the most-wealthy 1%, and also tend older because almost nobody earns that much money when they are young.  Over time, as the town demographics change, town preferences and policies will change, too.  Older residents might stay, but as the reward for selling goes higher and higher, and as their children end up living far away in more affordable places, the incentives to leave eventually win.  Either way, something will change.

The original purpose of zoning was also socially dubious — “poor folk” were viewed as a detriment to neighborhoods — but that doesn’t have to be the case.  We can change our zoning to reflect social needs, like a need for more housing, or a need to let people live closer to where they work.

Traffic

One big worry about increasing density is that if the new people behave like the current people, we’ll just end up with more traffic and more competition for a fixed amount of parking.  This is a risk, but I think two things mitigate it.  

The first is that the main point of adding density is that it will make the alternatives to driving more feasible.  More people taking transit means buses can run more often; in our town, there are two buses to two parts of town, and the bus that serves the dense part of town runs every 7 minutes at rush hour, and no worse than 17 minute intervals in the middle of the day; the bus that serves the not-dense part of town runs every 20 minutes at rush hour, and up to 35 minute intervals in the middle of the day.  Recently, to improve service, a lane was reserved for the more-frequent bus in a critical portion of its route because more people were traveling that section of the road by bus than by car.  The large number of people using that bus was part of what made this reserved lane politically possible — it was not “better for the planet” or “mass transit is good for social equity” or “mass transit is safer for other people” — it was literally, “this will move more people along this road in a given amount of time”.  Similarly, for bicycles, more people trying to bike to work and bike places will generate the political will to make it easier, and it might not even impede automobile travel.  The Mass Central Rail Trail is off-road, so takes no space from cars. In quite a few cases the impediment to car travel is competition for intersection time, not competition for road lanes (this is true on the Middlesex Turnpike/Lowell Street through Lexington, this is also true for Concord Avenue from Belmont to the Fresh Pond Rotary).

That is, one of the reasons for increased density is to make not-car transportation physically and politically feasible, and to create more options.  The bus that you don’t take because 20-minute intervals are not convenient, might become the bus that you do take because 10 minute intervals are convenient.  And by creating those options, we also create the option to not care so much about traffic; if you ride a bike, car traffic jams are just something that you ride through or ride past.  If you ride the bus, there can be a bus lane so you’re not delayed, and even if you are delayed, at least you’re not driving.

The second thing that might mitigate the traffic impact of increased density is that induced demand is a two-way street — if travel on a road gets easier, more people will drive there, but if travel on a road gets harder, fewer people will drive there.  Another way of phrasing this is that traffic will be pretty awful no matter what we do (till we ban it, block it, or price it), so traffic doesn’t actually matter. If, somehow, we kicked 10% of the population out of town, fewer people from in town would be clogging the roads — but more people from out-of-town would use the newly available road capacity to get to Cambridge and Boston.  This effect is becoming larger and faster-acting as more and more people use apps like Waze to quickly seek free-flowing routes and avoid traffic.  If, on the other hand, we added 10% to our population, more people who lived here would be clogging the roads — and cut-through traffic would seek other routes, commuters would reconsider using mass transit, car pool, etc, and the total traffic increase would be somewhat blunted.  At the same time, if we cut our population by 10%, our existing bus routes might have their frequency reduced because of the reduced demand, whereas increasing population increases demands, and ultimately leads to increased frequency. The #73 arrives more often because the #73 fills up.

Creating these options to get people out of cars is one of the reasons to favor increased density near jobs and transit; cars are entirely a personal good, not a social good.  Anyone in a bus wishes the cars were out of their way.  Anyone living near a road wishes fewer cars used it because cars are noisy and create and raise dust.  Anyone walking near a road would prefer fewer cars for all those reasons, plus the difficulty of crossing a road quickly and safely, especially with children.  Anyone biking on a road definitely prefers fewer cars (especially with children).  And even someone driving on a road, if they are stuck in traffic, would prefer that enough other people (but not them) would choose not to drive right then, so that they could drive faster.  And to the extent that most cars (98%) are not electric, cars pollute somewhat and emit greenhouse gases.

Another way to look at this is that our current traffic problems are in some sense a product of our zoning; we’ve zoned in a way that makes bus transit to half the town far less effective, so few or no buses run there, thus people drive instead.  

Education 

Education is a much stickier problem.  Anyone who’s rah-rah density and wonders why those bozos in Belmont don’t do their part, read this section carefully, and imagine coming up with an answer that’s not glib.

At least in Massachusetts, K-12 education is largely funded from local property taxes, and education is relatively expensive.  For Massachusetts, in 2017, average per-pupil spending was almost $16,000, but the average single-family tax bill was well lower than that, not quite $6000 in 2019.  This may be misleading because cities have both large non-residential tax bases and also large populations that proportionally influence the average.  I will instead work with the figures for Belmont, both because they are available, and because its proximity to Cambridge and Boston make it an obvious candidate for “why not greater density?”

In Belmont, the average tax bill in FY2019 was $12,720, so double the state average — there’s little business or industry in town, so almost all of the property taxes are paid by homeowners.  The tax rate is a low percentage because land is expensive.  Education spending is below the state average, and below neighboring peers, but still $13,581.74 per student in FY2017 — that is, more than the average residential property tax bill. In FY2019 the state subsidized about 1/6 of our school spending ($9.5 million out of about $60 million). That is, households with multiple school-aged children cost the town more in school spending than they pay in property taxes.  This is mentioned every time zoning changes or affordable housing are brought up at town meeting, and both the we-hate-taxes crowd and the spend-for-schools crowds unite, because the school supporters know well that our schools run very lean and are not sure how many more students they can support. (Results above average, spending below average, we have a goose that is laying golden eggs but gosh it costs so much to feed it.)

An additional constraint is the size of the school facilities themselves; there are four K-4 elementary schools, one middle school (5-8) and a high school (9-12). The middle school was rebuilt after a fire in 1995, but the school’s size was limited by state projections of declining enrollment in future years.  These projections turned out to be incorrect (the town lobbied hard for larger but was turned down, as I was told a few years ago by a member of the school committee then) and the middle school has been using additional modular classrooms since early 2017, when middle school enrollment was 1389 students.  Middle school enrollment this school year (2018/2019) was 1489 students (from belmont_public_schools_FY20.pdf, a copy of the annually updated original), and peak enrollment (based on real estate trends and the existing elementary school pipeline) is expected to be 1621 in school year 2021/2022.  That is, middle school enrollment grew by 7.2% in the last two years.

Overall enrollment, in the nine years starting at 2018/2019, is projected to increase by 7.77%, or 0.835% per year, compounded.Screen Shot 2019 06 10 at 9 13 13 PM

This increase is not a result of greater density, but changing demographics, but it is still an increase.  The number of school-aged children is expected to grow at a moderate rate over the next decade, and until the new high school is completely finished, the schools (especially elementary and middle) are pretty much full.  The new high school is necessary because the old high school has become impractical to maintain, but it is designed to accommodate two more grades to take pressure off the middle and elementary schools — elementary schools become K-3, the middle school becomes 4-6, and the upper school becomes 7-12.  This change is not reflected in any of the projections above, and it will reduce the space crunch in all the schools.  We’re spending plenty of money to make this happen.

I’m a little puzzled about how to reconcile the usual recipe for solving “our property taxes are too high” with the need for regional housing growth to match regional job growth.  Normally, the advice for a town like Belmont is to add more commercial property — that is, add jobs, not housing, because businesses on the tax rolls are a budget win.  That’s not going to improve the regional jobs-housing imbalance.  The state’s role in this is also a little puzzling, because Belmont runs a pretty good school system for not much money.  I am certain that a lot of this comes from our history of somewhat better schools and somewhat higher property values than several neighboring towns, which leads to selection for new residents-who-are-parents focused on their children’s education and who have somewhat deep pockets, but this was also true 25 years ago, with our much-more-middle-class 25-years-ago demographics (which we’re not preserving because the price of housing is spiking).  Assuming that the state government sees best-feasible education for the largest number of kids as a public good, it seems like they’d want towns with good school systems to be able to grow and educate even more students, but that’s not current policy.  The spike in housing costs also changes who can buy into towns with better school systems; the middle class is priced out.  This seems like something the state would care about, and if the state sincerely cars, they’d say it with a wheelbarrow full of money.

I don’t see an easy way around this; if we just add housing of all kinds, we’ll strain the school capacities and the school budgets, but if we do nothing the housing scarcity problem remains.

Half-assed ideas

I’m convinced we have to do something, but maintaining a small school system while adding population is a tough problem.  I grew up someplace with regional school funding (Pinellas Country, FL) where the population grew 3.3% per year the entire time I lived there, and they had a hard time keeping up (and that population growth was disproportionately older people, not children).

If the state committed to seriously funding education with state revenues, that would help remove the fiscal reason to oppose density.  In years past that funding source has not been reliable across recessions, whereas property taxes are regarded as intrinsically reliable (without anyone noticing that we defined them that way — Prop 2.5 permits a steady growth in revenues as long as property values do not crash catastrophically).  A wealth tax, i.e., a property tax generalized to cover financial instruments and bank accounts in excess of some threshold, might help here, provided that the state government diverted an adequate fraction of this into its rainy day fund during good times. (Massachusetts is constitutionally prohibited from having income tax brackets).  Or perhaps, some sort of Georgist land value tax at the state level.  I’m not sure what would happen with a wealth tax that allowed variable rates to track a stable revenue stream,like Prop 2.5 does for real estate; in recessions, the tax rate would rise, and that might make them worse.  Or, by prying money loose from people who had accumulated it, it could blunt the effect of the recession.

We have some regional cooperation already; for special ed, LABBB (Lexington Arlington Belmont Bedford Burlington) pools resources for better services and efficiency.  The local vocational education school (Minuteman) is also supported regionally by a larger collection of towns, though Belmont is not currently a member.  If there were a way to make funding more regional, say, by sharing some of the property taxes paid by an employer/employer’s-landlord with the employee’s city or town, that would reduce suburbs’ fiscal incentives for opposing new population growth.  Simply expanding revenue collection out over a larger region would do the same.

Another possibility is to arrange for the new housing to be too small to easily accommodate families, for example studios, and single-bedroom units. Quite a few towns around here do something similar for their affordable housing; they attempt to make it retirement-sized, not family-sized, in hopes of reducing the number of children that move to town.  Assuming we did this but for not-retired people, we’d want to locate it somewhat carefully to increase the chance that these new residents would be less likely to drive to work and common errands. Three obvious choices are Waverley Square (Fitchburg commuter rail line and the very-frequent #73 bus), Belmont Center (Fitchburg commuter rail line, less-frequent #74 bus (also #75), and an easy bicycle ride to Alewife commuter rail station), and the southeast corner of town, roughly Precinct 7, which has a shorter ride on the #73, and plausible bicycle access in several directions (it is past a hill, that helps).  Someone who was not really sure that people would do without cars might favor Precinct 7 because rush hour trips into Cambridge and Boston would traverse only a small bit of Belmont.  Another option might be near Blanchard Street between the railroad tracks and Concord Avenue; that gives easy bicycle access either to Alewife or into Cambridge, and the option of either the #74, #75, or #78 buses into Cambridge.  However, some of that is low, and might be vulnerable to flooding in the future.

I have in the past thought that adding small, higher-density housing would be merely “kicking the can down the road”, because what happens when a couple living in a small apartment decides they want to start a family? Either they will want to move into something larger in town (creating demand) or decide to make do with the smaller apartment that they have (increasing the school population).  I think this still adds students to the school system, but perhaps in lower proportion to added population than if we built additional family-sized housing.

Belmont has two lower-density areas that I think are problematic for adding people.  Belmont Hill is quite low density (zoned that way), but it has no transit connections, is problematic for biking because the hill is so steep, and if someone there drives into Cambridge or Boston, they travel all the way across town.  The northeast corner of town, across Little Pond from the rest of town, has some recently-built housing, and has a plausible walk to the Alewife T station, but is otherwise disconnected from the rest of town. It’s also quite low, and if sea levels rise much in the next few decades will be correspondingly more vulnerable to floods (5 feet shown, assuming some combination of sea level rise and bad storm).

One thing we might need to also do is get over the idea that a “home” (what Belmont is a town of) is a single-family detached residence.  I know that our motto is going to generate a little bit of resistance to building something that isn’t “homes” as we usually think of them here.  We in fact have quite a few 2 and 3 family homes in precincts 3, 4, 5, and 7, especially closer to Trapelo Road and Belmont Street.  Those are homes, and larger collections of smaller apartments would also be homes, and many people would be glad to live there.

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