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:  

Development Update

by Aaron Schuetz

Arlington County has changed rapidly over the past few decades, but with Amazon coming, change seems to have accelerated. Many of us who have been here for more than a decade find things have changed in both good ways, and bad. Gone are many of the modest neighborhood homes built for the federal workforce. Gone are many small commercial buildings with surface parking lots. As we continue to urbanize and up-build, we have gained a lot and have welcomed many more people into our community. But we’ve also lost a lot. We might be losing the sense of community that has been so important to many who choose to live in Lyon Park. Striking a balance and deciding when to ride the wave, and when to push back against it, can be challenging.

When I first became involved with the LPCA and Development issues, the 2201 Pershing project was just beginning. Concern about how development would change our community and ensuring it would be an asset was foremost. A decade later, what do you think? Do you like it? Do you pine for what used to be there? Do you wish there was even more? Well, more is coming. Just across Pershing Drive, the Days Inn site is being prepared for redevelopment. The County just approved changes to the General Land Use Plan, paving the way for a similarly large development. These two developments will define a “Gateway” into our neighborhood. While a decade ago, the 2201 building was deemed by many to be “too large” for being so far from the metro, Arlington staff now considers an even larger building to be OK. At the same time, even more effort is being put into how that building’s “massing” is arranged on the site—both in how it relates to the neighboring houses and apartments, and also in how it “feels” for pedestrians walking the street. We’ve invited the owner/developer to come to our January LPCA meeting to present their plan for this site. Our engagement can help them design something that is a neighborhood asset. We can’t ask them for a community swimming pool, but we can make suggestions and raise our concerns about traffic, retail, open space, and affordable housing. I hope you can make that meeting.

Just outside our neighborhood, there’s lots more happening. Most important for us, the Silver Diner/Joyce Motors block will be redeveloped with a hotel on the point closest to the metro, and two residential buildings that border 10th Street. While the block involves two separate developers, they are working together on certain aspects (like a single underground parking structure). The largest issue for our neighborhood is how it affects Ashton Heights. While the development is on the far side of 10th street from Ashton Heights, the County seems to be softening about some height tapering issues, meaning the building could “tower over” 10th street. That would be in stark contrast to Ashton Heights’s single-family dwellings (although some commercial sites border 10th with residential set back). I’ve been working with other Civic Associations to push back on the County’s decisions like these, because later, developers will use them as a precedent for developments that are in our neighborhood.

In addition, Arlington is considering updates to the Clarendon Sector Plan. This plan (now 15 years old) created the overall vision for Clarendon’s redevelopment. It has helped guide the area’s growth and success, even if many of us miss the old Clarendon and feel “too old” to hang there now. The Sector Plan includes the sites I mentioned, and nearby sites (St. Charles Church, the Fire Station, and the Wells Fargo bank site) that will soon be redeveloped. While some people believe parts of the plan need tweaking (like incorporating Arlington’s Vision Zero plan for making streets safe for everyone, not just cars and trucks), others are unhappy that County staff seem to be undermining parts of the plan. My biggest concern is that the fire station block, which was once designated as a future park space, will likely not become a park. In Rosslyn, the great new fire station is integrated into a new development, which freed up county land. The Arlington Fire Department seems not to be interested in pursuing a similar solution in Clarendon, preferring to rebuild the station on the current site.