Many momentous decisions are made by default. And sometimes you bring the most radical changes upon yourself by what you didn’t do.
We need to make sure that we are building for all income levels and that we are aware of the ripple effects that come with new development. Bills filed by the House and Senate Democrats struck a far better balance: They liberalized zoning rules while also authorizing inclusionary zoning authority for cities and towns and enabling cities and towns to impose fees on developers for associated infrastructure costs. And there’s more that needs to be done beyond this, as state Representative Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge has pointed out, from strengthening tenant protections to simply investing more in housing.
Let’s note that Baker’s bill contains necessary measures. We need growth in housing stock, as a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition of housing security and economic justice. Boston City Councillor Lydia Edwards (eg.) has been right to move the conversation away from just liberalizing zoning. As Cohn says, we need to make darned sure that we’re building for all income levels, not just hope for the best through the good intentions of developers and the magic of free markets.
In addition, through development, a new housing law gives us a two-birds-with-one-stone opportunity. The creation of dense, highly efficient, multi-unit buildings in walkable, bikeable, transit-ready neighborhoods is widely seen as a necessary tool to drive down greenhouse gas emissions:
Though urban areas generate 70 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, that also makes them a good place to start making a difference. Toward a Healthier World, a report by the C40 network, argues that with a strict series of policy changes—including bolstering cycling, walking, and public transit; enacting more energy-efficient building codes and retrofitting old structures; and a rapid investment in renewable power—cities could achieve an 87 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”
(See also Paul Hawken’s list of climate solutions at Drawdown; and the new book Designing Climate Solutions by Harvey/Orvis/Rissman. It is uncontroversial that city planning is a critical part of fighting global warming.)
But part of our obstacle, even in my town of Arlington, is people who don’t want any new building at all. While Arlington’s town manager [and Town Meeting broadly – cf TrickleUp’s comment] seems very sympathetic to principles of smart, transit-oriented development, some of my Arlington neighbors —many presumably die-hard liberals — are dead-set against density; against infill; against transit-centered housing; even allowing in-law apartments. I’ve heard “density” described as just a trendy buzzword. Some say things like “renters don’t pay property taxes” (but landlords do). Particularly with regard to schools, one hears that “we’re full up here”. (Schools can’t be funded by the state for projected future populations; only what they’ve got right now; so in essence, we’re always “full up here”.)
We’ve seen this movie before: Arlington basically gave up on larger housing developments back in the 70’s, and despite the presence of many large apartment complexes on the Mass Ave and Pleasant Street corridors, not much has been built since then. This is not exceptional in Greater Boston, where permitting has been stingy in many municipalities. “Liberalism ends at the driveway” has been the rule, not the exception in Greater Boston. The effects of our actions — or refraining from action — may not be what we intended.
Those resistant to change have a case, even if I don’t ultimately agree. People are understandably concerned with changes to a neighborhood’s or town’s “character”, which any large-ish development is bound to bring. Large developments are … large. But the character of a neighborhood also changes when there’s little or no development, although it may not manifest itself driving down Main Street: The high salaries offered by some of our high-flying local industries, combined with tight housing supply, has driven the price of housing ever upward. People of moderate means, even the children of residents, are pushed out — or simply never arrive. Over time, a middle-class, mixed-income neighborhood with amenities becomes an exclusive, posh — and older — monoculture. Things are already changing, and fast.
This stuff is really hard. We cannot bring back a cherished past — or even hold on to the present — but we can try to manage the future. There is nothing more radical than an unfettered free market — even one that exists within the confines of a restricted housing market. And the radical nature of climate change itself is forcing us into quite serious modes of adaptation. The challenges are real and the tradeoffs are consequential. We have to decide what set of problems we’re willing to live with.
As for me, I do not want to live in a “boutique [town] for educated elites”, as economist Ed Glaeser has put it — where everyone has to work for a hotshot Kendall Square biotech firm to afford to live here. And I certainly will not accept a hellish future climate for my children: Arlington ought to do its part for sustainability, which means favoring win/win conveniences like fast buses, bike lanes, and access to the T.
I hope that my town can be part of regional, statewide solutions to these very stubborn problems. It can seem like one town’s work is a drop in the bucket. But we’re not acting alone; this will be played out town-by-town, and other towns will look to our example for how to make affordable, sustainable development work. Let’s do the right thing — you know, for the kids.