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In Arlington, advocates and critics of ‘missing middle’ housing face off

A draft framework for Arlington County's “missing middle” housing plan would eliminate single-family zoning, paving the way for townhouse-style condominiums like these in the Shirlington neighborhood. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The topic of housing wasn’t even on the agenda for lawmakers in Arlington County, but residents streamed into one recent meeting with a sea of posters to express their dueling views on the issue.

“Save Our Neighborhood. No Upzoning!” one sign read. “In Our Neighborhood, Density Means Diversity,” another declared. One group near the front insisted that “Arlington Is for Everyone.” A few rows back: “The Arlington Way Has Gone Astray.”

At one point, a few people leaving the room repeatedly shouted: “No upzoning!”

That raucous meeting offered a taste of what promises to be one of the most contentious political battles in recent memory in Arlington: a proposal to legalize “missing middle” housing — from townhouses to duplexes to eight-unit buildings — that many are treating as an existential debate over the future of this affluent, deep-blue Northern Virginia suburb.

The draft framework, which county lawmakers will begin taking up Tuesday, would do away with single-family zoning across Arlington, a county of 240,000 that sits on the doorstep of the nation’s capital. It is a product of a years-long study that considered the role these medium-density homes can play in expanding the housing supply in an increasingly expensive metropolitan area.

“At the end of the day, the question is: Should we legalize forms of housing other than ‘one house on one lot’ in about 80 percent of the county?” Katie Cristol (D), the county board chair, said in an interview.

But in a county where different neighborhoods can sometimes feel like different worlds — quiet, tree-lined streets in some areas and bustling high-rises near Metro stations in others — it’s a question that has residents preparing for battle. As in other communities around the region and across the country, potential changes to single-family zoning have sharply divided residents who see wildly divergent consequences for their neighborhoods.

Single-family zoning preserves century-old segregation, planners say. A proposal to add density is dividing neighborhoods.

Longtime Arlington homeowners who moved here decades ago fear that greater density would take away the tree canopy that attracted them to the area while crowding roads and schools and potentially leading to higher taxes. Other community advocates, many of them renters, argue that the plan would lower skyrocketing housing prices and accommodate the growing number of residents in the D.C. metro area.

Civic groups have already traded barbs on the role of developers (How much do they stand to benefit?), the question of parking minimums (Are they necessary?) and the impact on the lowest-income residents (Will they be helped or displaced?). Ahead of a county work session Tuesday, some groups are sounding an alarm, saying major changes have been rushed through without sufficient input.

“The vast majority of homeowners have absolutely no idea that there is such a proposal, and they have absolutely no idea what it might mean for them,” said Peter Rousselot, a leader of the group Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future and a condo owner in Virginia Square. An online feedback survey launched by county staff “is not an objective approach to something that is so profoundly different to the way Arlington has developed until now.”

His group has taken to labeling Tuesday as “D-Day,” urging the county board to delay any formal discussion without a more robust effort to measure public opinion and forecast the effect of more housing and more residents on Arlington’s budget.

Jane Green, president of the YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, which supports greater density, said there’s no reason to further delay the process. While the draft framework was released at the end of April, it is the latest phase of a broader effort by county planners since fall 2020 to study different housing types and draw feedback from thousands of Arlington residents on the topic.

“We’re in a housing crisis. We need more homes,” said Green, who rents a two-bedroom apartment in the Radnor/Fort Myer Heights neighborhood. “So let’s do everything we can to allow more homes that builders want to build.”

Arlington has a proud history of careful suburban planning, and it has for decades operated under one guiding principle: Development and growth belong around a few high-density corridors, tapering off into the single-family homes and green lawns that occupy the vast majority of the county.

But as major companies and more residents have moved to Arlington and housing prices have shot up, county planners have sought to reconsider whether existing land-use policies are the best fit for this former bedroom community.

Other jurisdictions across the country have already taken steps toward a similar goal: Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis have relaxed their zoning laws in recent years to allow for the construction of more townhouses and duplexes. Across the Potomac River in Montgomery County, Md., county planners are considering similar changes as an explicit way to promote racial equity. At the federal level, President Biden is pushing a $10 billion plan that would incentivize states and localities to relax single-family zoning laws.

The extraordinarily high cost of housing in Northern Virginia — the average price of a detached, single-family home in Arlington was more than $1.2 million in December — as well as unusually large lot sizes means that the county’s framework could be one of the most transformative zoning changes nationwide.

To achieve lower home prices amid a hot real estate market, county planners are pushing for a level of density unusual for many suburbs: “Eight-plexes” — small buildings divided into eight apartments — could be built by right, avoiding red tape, costly approval processes, and potential pushback from neighbors.

What that may look like is likely to be amended in greater detail over the coming months. The current draft framework dictates that any structure must not be bigger than whatever is allowed by right as a single-family house. And the lot size would determine the maximum number of units on a given property, so “six-plexes” and “eight-plexes” would generally be allowed only on larger lots of at least 12,000 square feet.

Cristol said the county will create additional engagement opportunities — in particular for residents to speak with one another about their diverse experiences as renters and homeowners — as planners revise the draft framework and shape it into draft ordinances.

But as she vows to see through some sort of zoning overhaul by the end of her one-year term as chair in December, some clashes are likely to lie ahead.

When some critics at the meeting in June interrupted her and began booing, she attempted in vain to shush the crowd. Instead, it was county board member Libby Garvey (D) who managed to grab the audience’s attention, offering a booming rebuke.

“Excuse me! Excuse me! Can everyone please behave?” Garvey said. “You may be seeing how people behave elsewhere in this country and across the river. … Yelling and screaming has never been a way to solve problems.”

The crowd let Garvey finish, then started booing again.