Arlington’s Missing Middle: False promise of affordability

Arlington’s Missing Middle plan sounds like a dream only if you ignore facts.

April 19, 2023 12:04 am

Arlington County, viewed from The Observation Deck at CEB Tower. (Flickr/Arlington County)

By Anne Bodine for Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future

In March 2023, Arlington County became the first jurisdiction in the Washington, D.C. area to abandon low density zoning, which enabled parts of Arlington to develop largely as single-family homes.  

Arlington’s newly-adopted Missing Middle Housing Plan allows six-plexes to be built on all but the smallest residential lots in areas that now range from 50-90% single family homes. The April 11 column by Wyatt Gordon downplays the significance of the change, noting that the 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.  

The Mercury’s readers deserve the full story. Since 1979, with the advent of Metrorail along two major corridors in our 26-square mile county, Arlington has pursued aggressive residential development. The pace has not slackened, according to the county’s planning, housing and development staff, who shared this in a 2020 bulletin of the Missing Middle housing study: “From 2010 through the end of 2019, Arlington produced approximately 11,370 housing units (net of demolitions), or an average of 1,137 housing units a year.”

While this makes sense given our proximity to D.C., successive generations of leaders have let “more density” reign supreme over most of our Comprehensive Plan goals (which include flood control, carbon neutrality by 2050, a 40% tree canopy, traffic management and public transit), as well as fiscal responsibility. Commercial development, including Amazon HQ2, is robust. The County Board relies on a “Zoning for Dollars” scheme where it wrests ever higher yields per acre of land while eschewing needed infrastructure to serve new residents. This is exemplified by  the Missing Middle effort, undertaken as county revenues are hurt by our catastrophic 22% commercial vacancy ratedouble what it was just 12 years ago. 

Next, readers should know the area median income (AMI) for a household of three people in Arlington was $128,100 last year. Arlington indeed needs 9,000 housing units, but for households earning 50% of AMI ($64,000/year). In the same report, the County noted on page 7  that we had a surplus of 1,600 units for households earning 80% of AMI ($96,000/year). 

George Mason University researcher Emily Hamilton told Mr. Gordon that the Missing Middle plan “could make moderate income purchasing feasible in all parts of the county.” But “moderate income” is generally 80% of AMI. The County’s own Missing Middle analysis projected the cheapest new unit in a six-plex would cost $600,000 for a 2-bedroom condo far from Metro. This price is far MORE than similar-sized units today. Analysis by our group, Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, shows that a typical 3-person household needs $193,000 per year to qualify for this new missing middle  condo, or 151% of AMI, blowing Ms. Hamilton’s claim of “moderate” income home ownership out of the water. In fact, the qualifying incomes for all missing middle units astronomically exceed AMI for African-American, Latino ($67,000 and $87,000, respectively) and senior Arlingtonians ($88,000).

Worse yet, Arlington’s Missing Middle plan has zero committed affordable options or displacement mitigations, as offered in other U.S. jurisdictions such as Portland, Oregon. Tax assessments will rise due to higher potential yield (investors are promoting 35% returns.).

Arlington’s historically Black neighborhoods are already largely zoned for “missing middle” housing types; this has increased displacement, voluntary relocation and gentrification. Green Valley, the largest of these neighborhoods, went from being 60% Black in 2000 to 23% in 2020. The County and its supporters have never explained how expanding the same zoning will yield different results.

These dynamics will continue to gentrify our diverse populations and workforce. ASF strongly opposes the County’s decision to replace “exclusionary zoning” with outright “exclusionary displacement.”   

Ms. Hamilton’s and Mr. Gordon’s claims are further undermined by the 2019 U.S. Census ACS 1-year microdata estimates for housing by tenure in Arlington, showing that 80% of 2- to 9-unit buildings in Arlington are rentals; other analysis suggests our market likely will favor 3-unit townhomes priced over $1 million (which allows lot subdivision and fee simple ownership). One local realtor of 12-years projects that we will “see perfectly good 1930s-1960s homes being torn down, causing a rapid conversion of whole neighborhoods.”Annual caps imposed by the Board will last only five years, a blip for developers seeking high returns on investment. 

ASF has other major concerns about the new zoning:

  • The County has planned no new infrastructure for the increased population (schools, parks, police stations, transit, stormwater).
  • Elevated land acquisition prices will complicate true affordable housing needs.
  • Existing state law seemingly thwarts new tree planting requirements (while incentivizing more tear downs that devastate the tree canopy.)

Arlington’s Missing Middle plan sounds like a dream only if you ignore facts.

Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future is a non-partisan educational and advocacy group founded in 2019 to address the overdevelopment and unprecedented flooding of that year. ASF seeks planning approaches that balance growth and sustainability. 

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