The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arlington ends single-family-only zoning

The Northern Virginia county’s ‘missing middle’ plan will allow buildings with four — and in most cases six — units in any neighborhood

Katie Cristol, then chair of the Arlington County Board, hears from citizens demanding more affordable housing, in Arlington, Va., in November. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
10 min

Arlington lawmakers voted Wednesday to allow multiunit residential buildings across the county, a controversial decision that shifts this Northern Virginia community away from the suburban ideal it was once designed around: single-family-only zoning.

The 5-0 approval of the policy, which had prompted months of explosive debate in this wealthy, liberal county, will make it easier to build townhouses, duplexes and small buildings with up to four — and in most cases six — units in neighborhoods that for decades required one house with a yard on each lot.

As housing stock locally and nationally has failed to keep up with demand, Arlington becomes the first locality in the D.C. region — and much of the East Coast — to loosen its zoning rules for more “missing middle” housing, an increasingly popular but often contested idea in urban planning. Governments both nearby and nationwide are weighing whether to follow suit with their own versions of a plan that had divided the county’s 240,000 residents, who alternately said it would either diversify or destroy their neighborhoods.

In remarks following the vote, Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey (D) said the policy was a necessary step to move past “discriminatory noise” within zoning rules and acknowledge the population increases that have become a fact of life in Arlington, which sits at the doorstep to the nation’s capital.

“Growth and change are, period — not good, not bad, just are,” Dorsey said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure we accommodate that — to make sure that it works well for as many people as it possibly can.”

Skip to end of carousel
  • "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.


End of carousel

This push to relax zoning rules, first implemented in cities such as Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., marks something of a departure from Arlington’s existing “smart growth” philosophy, which encouraged density along mass-transit lines but generally kept it to a minimum everywhere else.

Advocates of the new policy argued that it would undo exclusionary regulations, expand housing supply and open up the expensive county to more people. (The median home price in Arlington was $645,000 last month, nearly double the national figure.) Opponents called it misguided, saying it would do little to lower housing costs while spoiling what has made the county so attractive in the first place.

The zoning changes passed Wednesday make some concessions to critics: Starting July 1, the county will initially issue 58 permits annually for “missing middle” buildings, which are called that because they fall into the “middle” of the scale between single-family houses and high-rise apartment buildings. An annual cap would be lifted in 2028.

Home builders will only be allowed to put the densest structures — with five or six units — on lots that are at least 6,000 square feet in most cases and 7,000 square feet in others. All construction must also adhere to the same rules regulating height, lot coverage, floor area and setbacks of single-family houses.

But opponents of the policy nonetheless criticized the vote, saying these “Expanded Housing Options” (EHO) will jack up land prices and drive profit for developers while overwhelming neighborhoods and county infrastructure. They said it was part of an ideological campaign, rather than a sensible way to lower housing costs.

“We just made a decision based on emotional arguments, not on fact and analysis,” said David Gerk, a member of the group Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency (AfUT), who owns a four-bedroom house in the Arlington Forest neighborhood. “Having not listened to the residents and rammed through a rushed plan, our next stops are the courthouse and the ballot box.”

Peter Rousselot, president of the group Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, said the vote was “bulldozing” over the views of many residents who had expressed uncertainty about the impacts on their neighborhoods.

County officials have "risked something pretty important in the community,” said Rousselot, who owns a two-bedroom condo in the Virginia Square neighborhood. “When there’s this degree of opposition to a program like this, going ahead and doing it anyway is just too divisive a thing to do, and it’s not necessary to do.”

A coalition of groups supporting “missing middle” housing, including several faith-based and civil rights organizations, cheered the vote as a major victory, though they did not shy away from saying that more needed be done to boost housing stock in the inner-ring D.C. locality.

“It’s an amazing step forward,” said Bryan Coleman, a vice president of the NAACP’s Arlington chapter and renter of a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building in the Court House neighborhood. “We’re now allowing people, no matter where they are in life, to be able to access Arlington.”

Jane Green, president of the YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, echoed that sentiment.

“Doing this now sends the message to people like me that multifamily homes are not a burden,” said Green, who rents a two-bedroom apartment in the Radnor/Fort Myer Heights neighborhood. “That’s what this tells me, and I heard it loud and clear.”

Because of the cap and other restrictions, some said the policy change was more of a symbolic victory against century-old zoning rules written to keep out low-income residents and people of color rather than something that would markedly reshape the county.

But Arlington’s countywide zoning rules could become some of the most permissive nationwide on at least one measure. Among at least eight municipalities and three states that have passed similar policies, only Portland has allowed six dwellings on most lots, though only if some units are affordable.

Arlington first launched an effort to study “missing middle” housing over three years ago, with county leaders pushing to explore how allowing more of these homes might help create more room for middle-income residents.

Duplexes, townhouses and other low-rise multifamily buildings take up just 18 percent of the county’s residential land, officials found, while most of the rest — about 73 percent — is set aside for single-family houses. Condos sold in 2019 for an average of about $446,000, and single-family houses averaged at $1.07 million.

County officials initially said they would not be ending single-family-only zoning or doing what Portland or Minneapolis did, but as many critics see it, that’s what happened anyway. Last spring, planners introduced a framework that would allow for eight-unit buildings anywhere in Arlington.

The plan rested on a market-based theory: If smaller single-family houses were being torn down to make way for larger, more expensive ones, developers could introduce less-expensive housing options by putting multiple apartments on one lot and splitting the cost of that high-priced land.

Any new units they built would not be particularly affordable — even the cheapest apartments would still go for more than $400,000, according to county estimates — but they could bring real estate prices down.

Almost immediately, that proposal drew both enthusiastic support and fierce backlash. Slow-growth groups said the plan was a bait-and-switch that would reduce homeownership opportunities, slash larger units for families, and potentially displace single-family renters and seniors living on fixed incomes.

The year-long debate led to dueling rallies and yard signs, divided some civic groups, seeped into municipal elections, created long examinations about public engagement, and ultimately led to what many said had become most intense local fight in recent memory — all to the very end this week.

At a multiday public hearing that began Saturday morning, more than 220 speakers took turns addressing the board to push for or against the plan.

They rapped and read original poetry about “breaking down the walls of exclusion,” made several comparisons to March Madness, held a prayer vigil inside the county’s government center, and displayed an image of Godzilla — a stand-in for developers — destroying a single-family house.

“Lifestyles are changing in urban America,” said Malathi Thothathiri, a college professor who lives in Ballston. “For many people like me and millennials who are younger than me, our ideal lifestyle is not a house with a yard. We want an affordable space near services. We don’t think about parking spaces.”

After finding herself unexpectedly single three years ago, Thothathiri said, it came as a shock to see a lack of apartments within her budget — even though she had consistently saved up and kept costs low by taking public transit.

The “missing middle” plan, she added, would help create a county that prioritized the same things newer generations also valued: diversity, shared green space and affordability. “I hope the board will look to the future and not the past,” she said.

Moments later, nurse practitioner Maureen Ross approached the lectern and told the lawmakers that they had poisoned civic discourse in the county, adding that she felt she and others who disagreed with the policy were being unfairly accused of racism.

“Aren’t we — the people who live here now, the people who work hard — the people you represent?” she asked, noting that she had adopted biracial children. “This has been the most appalling conversation I’ve seen. Shameful!”

Ross said she lived with roommates until she was 40 and was eventually able to purchase her home — a rundown bungalow with peeling paint and no air conditioning — in 1997 for more green space, easier parking and a place to retire.

But “missing middle” would change the economic equation for her and plenty of others, she said, incentivizing them to sell to developers hungry to make a dime. “We’ll cash out, leave the place in the community we grew to love, leaving the rest of our neighbors stuck.”

At the final vote on Wednesday, lawmakers also settled on rules that require more off-street parking spots at new missing middle housing and that divide up the limited permits between different zoning districts to distribute them geographically around the county.

Libby Garvey (D), the board’s longest-serving lawmaker and one of its most reticent on some aspects of “missing middle,” said the plan passed was akin to a pilot program. She alluded that more work will need to be done.

“No one knows how this is going to turn out,” she said in her remarks after the vote. “Situations and information will change and maybe we’re doing to decide we need to make some adjustments sooner rather than later.”

As she finished speaking, some in the audience raised gravestones that said “R.I.P. to the Arlington Way,” a nod to the collaborative, consensus approach that has long been said to guide the county’s governance. Others gave the lawmakers a standing ovation.