The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What’s at stake with Arlington’s missing-middle housing debate

The Cherrydale neighborhood in Arlington on August 28. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Michael O’Grady is a research economist and geographic information system analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis. He formerly worked for Arlington Economic Development.

As a lifelong Arlingtonian, I cannot remember an issue as divisive as the missing-middle framework. A significant rethinking of housing in Arlington is at least 30 years overdue. The farther south one goes in Arlington, the more it looks like the land time forgot. Houses look faded, sidewalks look neglected, and the dated architecture sends a subliminal message that these areas don’t matter as much. Yet in an era of $1.3 million McMansions and $900,000 townhouses, the older housing stock is the backbone of market-rate affordable housing. The people who live there aren’t a uniform cross-section of Arlington but are more likely to come from disadvantaged groups who’ve struggled to achieve the American Dream — especially in Arlington.

It was hard for me to pick a side. Some of the NIMBYs think it’s possible to go back to an era in the 1990s when Arlington felt like an undiscovered oasis next to a booming metropolis. But there is no going back. A do-nothing option will slowly destroy Arlington’s beautiful multiclass, multiethnic mosaic. To be fair, most NIMBYs don’t argue this. However, these logical flaws pale in comparison with the misapplication of economics, blatant conflicts of interest, limited demonstrated understanding of history and selective data presentation from the YIMBYs.

Arlington needs to change to save itself. Some form of up-zoning is inevitable. But history has shown (e.g., Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, D.C.’s Columbia Heights) that doing something isn’t always better than nothing.

The missing-middle framework would increase market pressures while offering no safety nets for vulnerable residents. It would only accelerate the end of the beautiful mosaic. It is little more than micro-targeted poor-people removal, and I cannot support it.

Nothing is at stake, because even supporters of the missing-middle framework acknowledge in their formal analyses that it will have no measurable reductions in prices nor increases in affordable stocks. To dismiss concerns, they claim it won’t affect school crowding nor overload roads and other infrastructure. Meanwhile, home builders and their financiers already have a solid business model: buy older lots, demolish them and build luxury housing. The market for this is proven, profits are growing, and opportunity costs and risks are minimal. Developers have no incentive to alter this operation simply because the missing-middle framework says they could. For the laws of supply and demand to actually reduce price, there must be a glut of new housing, not a trickle. The scarcity of land plus the publicly available, real-time data on new-housing construction virtually assure that this will never happen.

Without government backing (which the missing-middle framework doesn’t provide), market-rate affordable housing is too risky. In talks about structural racism in suburbia, we forget that the biggest reason middle-class suburbs came into existence was massive federal subsidies (which dried up decades ago) for both supply (builders) and demand (lenders).

Look at this from a break-even analysis. To maintain existing market-rate affordable-housing levels, affordable-housing builders would have to purchase half the older properties that come on the market and build new duplexes. For missing-middle framework builders to expand market-rate affordable housing, they would have to buy the majority. Furthermore, they would have to outbid speculators and luxury builders to do it. The likelihood of this happening is practically zero.

Everything is at stake because of the moral hazard the march toward the missing-middle framework is producing. The board, having learned the wrong lessons from the streetcar debacle, has been so divisive that I fear for representative government in Arlington if they are allowed to stand.

So why do it? Using frameworks from political science, the answer lies in the political economy of Arlington’s major political party. To be successfully nominated, board members have to make promises to various constituencies — which almost always increase public expenditures. Arlington’s biggest revenue source is property tax. Older buildings generate less tax, and older communities provide only about two-thirds of the money needed to fund the services they use. Meanwhile, the county’s ability to paper over a growing fiscal imbalance is coming to an end as pandemic money dries up.

The missing-middle framework at this point is nothing more than a lie agreed upon by its proponents and worse than doing nothing. It is tempting to pass something now and fix it later. That will not work here. Political science models show that support for fixing a policy will always be less than support for enacting it originally (and rarely enough to pass a fix). Even if tweaks are made later, substantial community displacement will have already occurred. Successful change must be holistic — which the missing-middle framework is not.

The county owes us a long-term quantitative analysis of various options with open-access data to verify. Until then, I urge my fellow Arlingtonians to oppose the missing-middle framework.