Missing Middle Housing: Arguments For and Against

By Chris Thompson and Elaine Simmons

On November 12th, Arlington County leaders will decide whether to implement new zoning laws to allow for denser population on our existing county footprint; in this case by rezoning current single-family-only residential zones. 

First, a few facts. County data indicate that about 24% of the county’s housing stock is detached single-family homes (SFH) and about 47% is mid- or high-rise multifamily housing. Most of the remaining 29% is low-rise garden-style apartment buildings. In 2018, under then current zoning rules, the county forecast a net growth of 68,300 residents from 2020 through 2045 (a 30% increase in our population), with many or most of these presumably housed in an expanding number of mid- and high-rise buildings. Our county has more room to build “up” to accommodate expected population growth than to create new, low-density, single-family neighborhoods. In fact, the notable recent past trend in the Arlington SFH stock is not the growth in quantity; it is the growth in the size of homes via renovation or total replacement. According to the Alliance for Housing Solutions, the average size of a replacement home for an Arlington “teardown” in the past 10 years was three times the size of the original house, with an average sales price of $1.7 million. The concept to use the limited space we have to grow the proportion of housing that is neither SFH nor mid-/high-rise is called “Missing Middle (MM) Housing.” 

Proponents of MM support this land-use approach because they see SFHs on typical lots (1/6 acre in the case of Arlington) as beyond the economic reach of those in the middle class. The county also aims to rectify the injustice inflicted by racial exclusionary practices dating from the 1930s of limiting neighborhoods to SFHs. The MM approach is to rezone current SFH-only neighborhoods to allow for a mix of duplexes, triplexes, and even 8-plexes as, long as the building meets the same standard as a single-family dwelling. The desired outcome is more units of housing that are less expensive than new single-family units, with an intended focus on walkable/shoppable neighborhoods. This should benefit those looking to move into Arlington, those wanting to up-size within the County, and older residents looking to downsize within the same neighborhood. Environmental arguments for MM are that multi-family units have a lower per capita carbon footprint than large SFHs and increasing housing density within Arlington will reduce sprawl outside our county. Look for the County’s slides promoting the MM approach at https://www.arlingtonva.us/Government/Programs/Housing/Housing-Arlington/Tools/Missing-Middle   Also, you can find a major MM advocacy group’s website here: Five Things to Know About Missing Middle Housing — Alliance for Housing Solutions

Opponents of increasing the allowable density in low-density neighborhoods say that duplexes (which have sold in Arlington for $1.2M) and tri-plexes will be unaffordable for middle-income buyers. They agree that 6- or 8-family dwellings in neighborhoods like Lyon Park should be more affordable but expect them to be mostly rentals. They also consider the MM proposals as environmentally unsound (especially in reducing the tree canopy) and unduly taxing on County infrastructure (to include road congestion, stormwater/flood control, parking, schools and other public facilities). Opponents point to County data indicating that 60% of Arlington’s trees are found in the residential areas targeted by MM, which reduces the tree replacement requirements by up to 50%. Look for arguments against MM on the Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future website at: https://www.asf-virginia.org/missing-middle-housing.

If you are a first-time buyer in Arlington or are up-sizing within the county, a key question is what size MM housing unit (duplex through 8-plex) will be within your financial reach?  If you already live in an Arlington SFH neighborhood, how will multi-family units nearby affect you? Will MM optimistically yield a more accessible and diverse community, or will that optimism be tempered by issues often associated with higher density living, such as school crowding, competition for parking and traffic congestion? The county has sent up engagement opportunities at this link: