Charley Blandy for Arlington Town Meeting, Precinct 6

Precinct 6, Arlington MA

Vote April 10, 8am-8pm
Hardy School or early by mail

I became a member of Arlington Town Meeting in 2020, taking over the last year of a vacated seat. I’m now running for a full three-year term. I’m asking for your vote on April 10; you can vote by mail, or on 4/10 at the Hardy School.

I am a classical singer and voice teacher, and have taught voice at Tufts University since 2005 and Harvard University’s Holden Voice Program since 2002. I have degrees from Oberlin College and Indiana University. I’m switching careers to fight the climate crisis full-time; and I’m now in a mid-career Masters program at Tufts University’s Urban and Environmental Policy program, with a wonderful cohort and faculty.

I’m an Arlington school parent. My kids, Madeleine (15) and Nicholas (12) are Bishop School grads, currently at AHS and Ottoson respectively, and dealing with the COVID era of education with great resilience and grace. My wife Janet works for the federal government. Around town under normal circumstances, you can find us at Madeleine’s orchestra concerts or Nicholas’s baseball games (go ‘Stros!).

 Since 2004 I’ve been the co-editor of Blue Mass. Group, the leading progressive political blog in Massachusetts, writing about issues such as transit, environment, policing reform, and a special focus on climate change. 

I was inspired to run for Town Meeting mostly to support housing affordability and sustainable transit, particularly bicycling.

In last fall’s Town Meeting, I was very pleased to be able to vote for the following:

  • Article 4, where we essentially nullified time-of-day restrictions on use of the bike path;
  • Article 5, a home rule petition to the legislature that would allow Arlington to ban fossil fuel infrastructure for new construction;
  • Article 6, establishing an independent police civilian review board study committee;
  • Article 8, establishing an Affordable Housing Trust Fund for Arlington;
  • Article 13, for Ranked Choice Voting in Arlington.

I voted to keep the Black Lives Matter banner up at Town Hall (Article 25); though I think the town would do even better to implement policies that address the legacy and present ill effects of racism, especially in housing. And instead of a banner, we could perhaps establish a more permanent public expression of purpose and solidarity with black lives.

This coming meeting, if I’m re-elected, I’m looking forward to voting for the following (though not limited to these):

  • Article 12: Designating an Indigenous People’s Day (replacing Columbus Day)
  • Article 13: Designating Juneteenth as a holiday
  • Article 23: Authorizing a study for an Affordable Housing overlay, an intriguing idea that Cambridge has approved. (See a brief discussion here of the issue on ACMi with Arlington Town Planner Jennifer Raitt – discussion starts at 20:50 or so.)
  • Article 43: To allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs, also known as “granny flats” or “in-law apartments”). This would allow the construction by right of small apartments attached to a larger house, with a separate entryway. This would add to the variety of housing options in town, especially for elders who are downsizing; young adults; divorcées; widows/widowers; etc.
  • Article 91: Declaring a climate emergency, and calling for the town to “take immediate action in areas within the Town’s authority to reduce  greenhouse gas emissions, report on the quantity of the Town’s  emissions, promote and encourage  climate action by other government authorities, and protect the rights of people at greatest risk, for the purpose of reducing harm from the pace of warming and global ecological collapse to the maximum  extent possible”. Of course we’re in a climate emergency, and we should act with urgency and speed at every level of government, including locally. This is about local planning for resiliency and harm reduction; as well as setting an example for other communities, the state, and nationally; we’re never acting alone, in isolation.

Regarding Article 21:

To see if the Town will vote a warrant seeking to earmark a majority percentage of municipal funds allocated for affordable housing for those households/individuals making at or under 60% AMI [Area Median Income]; or take any action related thereto.

I think the intent behind this article is good; 80% of Area Median Income is still a pretty high income, and housing money needs to be targeted to those with need. But I am concerned that a simple mandate without an additional funding mechanism won’t result in any new housing. It seems to me that a more comprehensive approach is necessary if we want to get actual roofs over actual heads. Without that extra funding mechanism, I suspect Article 21, in a way, isn’t ambitious enough.

I have similar hesitation about Article 45, which would:

increase the percentage of affordable housing units required in any development subject to Section 8.2 of the Zoning Bylaw  from 15% to a percentage between 25 and 30%.

Again, I don’t think that simply passing a mandate, without a mechanism, is going to do what we want it to do.

I want to hear advice from people who have worked in the affordable housing arena, and see what they think of Articles 21 and 45. I’m grateful, for example, for the advice of Pamela Hallett of the Housing Corporation of Arlington, which does terrific work; and Karen Kelleher of LISC, an Arlingtonian of long experience in developing affordable housing. They have been generous in sharing their expertise with Town Meeting and the ARB.

I need to be convinced that these articles are likely to have their intended effect.

Housing affordability is a “wicked problem”, one that is regional, even international, in origin. Arlington has become a “victim of its own success”, in its easy proximity to very profitable employers paying high wages, particularly (though not limited to) Kendall Square and the 128 belt. This, plus a high quality of life in our town, has driven up housing costs to an eye-watering extent. It’s kind of unfair that every municipality is left to sort out how to deal with the local effects of global economic forces.

I’m wary of over-confident answers to the question of affordability. There is an argument that new market-rate housing is necessary. There are also arguments that new market-rate housing actually drives up the cost of housing; and that only new specifically-designated affordable housing should be allowed. And then some folks don’t want anything at all built for reasons of “preserving neighborhood character”.

I’ll address the latter argument first: If we don’t tailor our housing approach to affordability and sustainability, that does not mean that Arlington “stays the same”. In the last generation, this entire region has been re-mapped by income inequality. As the economist Ed Glaeser quipped some 15 years ago, we risk becoming — or perhaps already have become — a “boutique community for educated elites”. That doesn’t sit well with me. I feel that we should be open, available, and welcoming to all income groups, backgrounds, races, and professions.

Sustainability is tied in with these discussions as well. Nothing is more radical than climate change. Multi-family dwellings are simply much more energy efficient; and if we care about climate change (I can’t imagine why one wouldn’t), that means we must prioritize access to sustainable transit: Public transit, walking, and — my favorite — bicycling. (See “Building the Cycling City” for wonderful case studies from the Netherlands.)

With regard to market-rate housing, there is this recent literature review from the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA. The answers are not a slam-dunk, but there are some patterns to discern:

Key Takeaways:

Researchers have long known that building new market-rate housing helps stabilize housing prices at the metro area level, but until recently it hasn’t been possible to empirically determine the impact of market-rate development on buildings in their immediate vicinity. The question of neighborhood-level impacts of market-rate development has been hotly debated but under-studied.

Taking advantage of improved data sources and methods, researchers in the past two years have released six working papers on the impact of new market-rate development on neighborhood rents. Five find that market-rate housing makes nearby housing more affordable across the income distribution of rental units, and one finds mixed results.

These findings point to local benefits from market-rate development, but they should not be interpreted as an endorsement of market-rate development regardless of the project or neighborhood context. Housing production should still be prioritized in higher-resource communities where the risk of displacement and other potential harms is lower, and complementary policies such as tenant protections and direct public investments remain essential. Nonetheless, the neighborhood-level benefits of market-rate development are promising and indicate an important role for both market and non-market solutions to the housing crisis.

Research Roundup: The Effect of Market-Rate Development on Neighborhood Rents
Shane Phillips, Michael Manville, Michael Lens

So here’s what this seems to suggest: The laws of supply and demand do exist. On a regional level (Greater Boston), we do need to build more housing. As a “high-resource community”, Arlington should do its part — as should Lexington, Winchester, Belmont, Concord, Lincoln, etc. However, the acute effects in any given neighborhood of market-rate development are unknown. So building affordable housing, with renter protections, is also necessary. And indeed, in larger developments, market-rate housing can cross-subsidize affordable units. It’s Both/And, not Either/Or.

But act we must, with creativity, and an awareness of the big picture. As Jarred Johnson of TransitMatters says:

Local control with no recognition of the interconnected nature of housing fails poor people and people of color. Full stop. Massachusetts’ ridiculous housing costs are a blight on the [Commonwealth].

@jarjoh on Twitter