Seeking to calm a fractious debate over zoning changes, Arlington County lawmakers on Wednesday eliminated one of the boldest — and most controversial — parts of a plan that has for months divided this Northern Virginia suburb: The ability to build “eightplexes” on any lot in any residential neighborhood.
County Board members cited moderation as they voted to advance a plan that would enable multifamily housing construction with up to six units in this wealthy community of 240,000, where analysts say housing demand is too high and stock is too low.
While the overall “missing middle” proposal was advanced unanimously, discussion on the maximum number of units revealed subtle but significant policy differences on the consensus-loving, all-Democratic board, which expects a final vote on the plan in March.
Three of the five board members, including Vice Chair Libby Garvey (D), pushed to cap development at six units, citing a need for slower, consensus-driven change.
What is ‘missing middle’ housing?
- "Missing middle” housing is a term that refers to small multiunit residential buildings like townhouses, duplexes and garden apartments.
- It covers a range of housing types that fit into the “middle” between detached single-family houses and high-rise apartment buildings — in terms of scale, form and number of units.
- Local laws have made it difficult or impossible to build this type of housing in many neighborhoods. That’s why advocates say it’s “missing."
- Indeed, many suburban neighborhoods in the United States were developed under zoning rules that allow for only one house with a yard on each lot.
- This is sometimes known as “single-family zoning.”
- A growing list of governments, including Minneapolis and Oregon, have in recent years voted to roll back their zoning rules and make it easier to build “missing middle” housing.
- Several localities in the D.C. area are following suit, with Arlington County leading the pack.
- Changes like Arlington’s missing middle plan would still allow for the construction of single-family houses, which take up most of the county’s residential neighborhoods.
- But in Northern Virginia and other communities around the country, this idea has generated a heated debate — one that has sometimes dominated local elections.
- Many longtime homeowners say more homes and more density could ruin their single-family neighborhoods.
- They worry that “missing middle” will crowd schools, clog sewers, remove trees and make it harder to find parking.
- Skeptics also say the idea will not create housing for residents being priced out — and will only benefit developers instead.
- Advocates who support missing middle say this concept will fix racist zoning policies and create more affordable housing options.
- New duplexes or townhouses will still be expensive, they say, but will still cost less than single-family houses.
- That will add supply to the real-estate market and bring down skyrocketing housing costs.
“I’m frankly tired of talking about seven- and eight-plexes,” she said. “The conversation from here until March will be better and more focused and will bring down some of the distress in the community if we at this point signal that we’re not going to go above six [units].”
But board member Katie Cristol (D) suggested the body was cowing to critics.
Many homeowners have lobbied against the policy entirely, and two groups sent out press releases condemning the vote moments after the meeting. Cristol said she was disappointed that the results of a years-long study were being replaced by “measures designed to chase public opinion.”
“Moving forward with care,” she added, “does not mean moving forward with timidity.”
As in other communities that have reconsidered their zoning rules, Arlington’s “missing middle” initiative has divided its residents over how such an effort will shape their county: As advocates push to loosen policies once meant to exclude people of color, opponents say they worry it will overwhelm the leafy, single-family neighborhoods that take up most of the space in Arlington.
Much of the debate kicked off in April 2022, when county planners proposed a draft framework that would allow for developers to build duplexes, townhouses and small apartment buildings with up to eight units on any lot anywhere in this wealthy, expensive suburb.
The framework drew some immediate opposition among Arlington homeowners, who raised concerns about how denser housing would clog sanitary sewers, crowd schools and remove trees. They also pointed out that even the least expensive units produced under the plan would still go for nearly half a million dollars.
But supporters, including Cristol, framed the question as a matter of supply and demand: On lots that might otherwise be turned into giant single-family houses, “eightplexes” would add more units and more options into a tight market, and — perhaps — lower costs in the market more generally.
(The median home price in Arlington was $532,500 in December, with the median single-family home going for just under $1 million.)
As the debate ramped up, one side boosted one number as a selling point for “missing middle” while the other blasted it as a cudgel. At a marathon public-comment meeting on the plan Saturday, several housing activists repeated the phrase, “Eight is great.”
Practically speaking, many of Arlington’s other zoning requirements mean that it would be impossible for builders to construct eight-unit buildings on smaller lots, housing economists have said. The new townhouses and duplexes would have to match many rules for single-family houses, from the height of a building to the maximum width of a garage.
Yet, some lots on the wealthier, northern end of the county are unusually large for an inner-ring suburb like Arlington, with 20,000 or more square feet. And it is on those lots that supporters like Cristol said eightplexes could fit comfortably.
A growing list of municipalities around the country have taken similar steps to loosen their zoning requirements and make it easier to build denser housing in single-family neighborhoods — from Minneapolis more than four years ago to Gainesville, Fla., last fall. Few of those cities or counties, however, had allowed for anything more than four units.
That option in particular drew the most intense support and opposition since last April, as civic groups organized dueling rallies, wrote searing letters to the editor, and infused the debate into last November’s local elections. Board member Matt de Ferranti (D), who was the only one defending his seat last year, campaigned on a “consensus” platform that included fourplexes across the board and sixplexes on only larger lots.
Wednesday night’s vote set the parameters for what may be considered at a final vote scheduled for March 18. The board members went through a dozen categories that spelled out several options for various pieces of the plan, although these limits can be further narrowed later this spring.
As a part of that process, de Ferranti introduced a motion that would limit the vote to only six units, drawing support from Garvey and Takis P. Karantonis (D).
“The costs for eight and seven [units] for our discussion outweigh the benefits,” de Ferranti said. Seven- and eight-unit buildings would present “legitimate” parking challenges, he said, and result in mostly one- or two-bedroom units, which could be added in the county’s “urban corridors” along the Metro.
Chair Christian Dorsey (D) and Cristol — neither of whom are planning to seek reelection later this year — lamented that eightplexes were being taken off the table before the board reached a final vote.
Garvey, though, said the plan was significant nonetheless.
“So sorry that you’re disappointed, but that’s the whole nature of what we’re doing here. I’m not,” she added. “We should be doing sensible and measured change.”