Fighting over 348 units: What’s next for Arlington’s pro-housing push?

April 11, 2023 12:04 am

Battling signs at an Arlington County Board meeting. (Luca Gattoni-Celli)

Supporters and opponents of the “missing middle” housing plan that Arlington’s County Board unanimously passed last month agree on little, save the fact that something died that night. While supporters celebrated the demise of “the Jim Crow relic of single-family zoning,” opponents waved signs that read “R.I.P. The Arlington Way” — a reference to the consensus-driven decision-making which typifies county government.

Given the hyperbole of the debate surrounding Arlington’s missing middle proposal, casual observers might be forgiven for assuming bulldozers now stand at the ready to demolish detached homes in favor of multi-story monstrosities. In reality, the new plan allows at most 348 missing middle units to be constructed per year in a county which needs an additional 8,800 affordable homes by 2040.

If the missing middle plan won’t unlock the building boom that supporters hoped for and opponents feared, what’s next for Arlington’s pro-housing policy push?

Caps on construction

While headlines heralded the end of single-family zoning in Arlington, the policy passed won’t result in drastic changes to the county’s housing supply. Come July 1, property owners can apply to build duplexes, fourplexes and sixplexes on parcels currently zoned for just single-family structures. Although such a change sounds transformational, a coterie of caveats included in the proposal means a maximum of 348 units can be built for the next five years.

“This debate got so much attention relative to the small amount of change this plan allows,” said Emily Hamilton, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Institute, a George Mason University market research center.

For the first five years, Arlington will cap the number of single-family lots that can be converted to missing middle homes at 58, meaning if all of those parcels allow sixplexes, then the county could see at most 348 new housing units thanks to the change. Since all of those lots won’t be large enough or close enough to public transit to accommodate six units, the final tally will surely be lower.

Once the 58 lot per year cap expires in 2028, Hamilton is hopeful that Arlington’s missing middle plan will produce more new homes than similar reforms have in Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis. The reason behind her optimism is the area’s abundance of McMansions.

“We have some fricking huge single-family houses getting built,” Hamilton said. “The idea [of missing middle] is that you can build the same size box that you can for a new single-family house but you can break it up into more units. Relative to other localities that have adopted missing middle reforms, Arlington allows huge new single-family houses, so that means it’s more feasible to split that big box into multiple units compared to cities that have smaller size limits.”

Where Hamilton proves less hopeful is on the plan’s parking requirements. In transit-rich parts of Arlington, builders must provide half a parking spot per unit. In less accessible areas, each unit must include one full parking spot. Every square foot required to house a car is one less square foot that could be used to house people, making missing middle construction less likely to be financially feasible compared to building a single-family home on the same lot.

A duplex in Arlington that received a construction variance. (Google Street View)

Ending exclusionary zoning

Although the details (and expected impact) of Arlington’s missing middle plan are surprisingly modest, supporters view its passage last month as the first chink in the armor of exclusionary zoning which has dominated the county’s approach to housing for the better part of the last century.

“Maybe a lot of people won’t use this missing middle housing because, yes, it will still be expensive and, yes, there will not be much of it built, but this is a moment,” said Jane Green, president and co-founder of the YIMBYs of Northern Virginia. “This is a big zoning change that affects all of the county at a fundamental level. We’ve been operating under this regime that multi-family housing can stay in this one corridor and that single-family can’t be touched. It’s more than a zoning code; it’s a mindset of where certain people should be allowed to live.”

Such broad pro-people, pro-growth language is one of the reasons support for missing middle expanded beyond the typically whiter, more affluent and renter-heavy “Yes In My Backyard” crowd to include groups ranging from the NAACP and the Alliance for Housing Solutions, to the Sierra Club and Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. 

Supporters like Green hope the unanimous vote in favor is a sign that elected leaders are becoming less beholden to the homeowner-dominated civic associations that opposed the plan. As homeowners comprise less than half the county and those who attend public meetings are even fewer, the opposition was never a representative bunch in her eyes.

“For the other side, it was never about the homes,” she said. “It’s about the control. The missing middle fight became about the idea of who the county listens to. A lot of people who function in the civic association and homeowner universe think their voices are the only ones that matter. I love renting, and I don’t ever want to own, so to me this vote sent the message that multifamily buildings are good, density is good and more people are good.”

Momentum for more housing?

In the wake of their missing middle win, pro-housing advocates aren’t holding back on their wish list of additional fixes the county’s board of supervisors could make to boost affordability and the overall supply of new homes.

The 2024 proposed budget for Arlington’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund would nearly halve this year’s funding. The pro-growth coalition wants to see that sum fully restored and then some. Plans to rezone Langston Boulevard from one or two story auto-centric strip malls into dense, walkable communities are also in the works, with a final proposal planned for release between July and September. The missing middle reform also opens up the possibility that Habitat for Humanity and/or a community land trust could finally prove feasible.

If county board member Katie Cristol has anything to say about it, The Arlington Way of gradual, technocratic progress may not be dead after all.

“We just legalized a form of housing that could make moderate income purchasing feasible in all parts of the county,” she said. “First we had to make these homes legal, and now we can think about how to improve our programs.”

Cristol hopes an ongoing homeownership study will show how the missing middle plan could support county housing programs that have been underutilized for years.

“The reason [purchase assistance] and Live Where You Work grants haven’t historically worked is not a lack of interest,” she said. “The reason is that if you earn less than 80% area median income to qualify, then you typically don’t have the capital to buy anything, which says more about how expensive our housing stock has become. Missing middle could render new units feasible that fall into that price range.”

Not In My Backyard backlash?

The only thing that could prevent further progress is a potential backlash. With two open seats on the board of supervisors, a candidate who is running against the recent reforms could claim one or both of those spots.

For now, elected officials from Alexandria to Falls Church have been watching Arlington’s unanimous passage of its missing middle plan with envy. While one candidate for state senate has already called on Loudon County to legalize fourplexes and sixplexes along Metro’s Silver Line, many other electeds have been asking for advice to push similar changes in their localities, according to Cristol. No matter where they are located, she encourages them to look into re-legalizing missing middle housing in their communities.

“This took, by some measures, eight years and by any measure, at least three in terms of socializing the idea, [generating] community engagement and forming the general parameters of the policy,” she said. “Even if our vote does nothing more than make a few people in Tidewater think this may be a fit for their region and reference this in a long-range plan, that would not put them in a dissimilar place from where we started.”


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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.