A Case from Greater Boston

February 28, 2006
Alexander von Hoffman (Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies)

The building permit system in Arlington, Massachusetts, was quick and casual in 1958 when business arrangements during construction and beyond "were based on a handshake," with personal relationships playing a heavy role. In the following decades, Arlington—like countless other American communities— abandoned its informal, pro-development system of approving residential development projects and constructed a complex – and increasingly controversial – obstacle course of regulations. While some see such regulations as a laudatory example of local environmentalism, others charge that they constrict supply and thereby raise the costs of available homes. In this regard, Arlington, Massachusetts serves as a useful case study. The town is located in a region, metropolitan Boston, where nearly all municipalities have implemented strict procedures regulating residential development. The case study shows that in the 1970s the Town of Arlington completely abandoned its policy of encouraging development of apartment buildings—and high-rise buildings at that—and adopted requirements that severely constricted the possibilities for developing multifamily dwellings.