The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Put an end to single-family zoning in Arlington

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol in Arlington on Nov. 12. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
6 min

The Arlington County Board will vote next week on a proposal to allow multiunit dwellings in neighborhoods reserved exclusively for single-family homes. The board should approve the plan.

Supporters envision a more diverse community and relief from runaway housing prices, among other benefits. Critics, however, envision something different: More neighbors, less parking and stretched public services. “So I ask,” said resident Christine Brittle at a January board hearing, “what will it be like to live between two sixplexes? There’ll be a lot more trash cans, for starters: 12 per sixplex, 24 total, more in the summer when we have yard waste.” She also said there would be 18 new cars on the street.

Such are the passions that stir when county leaders seek to upend land-use principles in place for nearly a century. According to a study of the county’s zoning history, a 1930 ordinance cemented Arlington’s preference for single-family housing — and racial segregation — and another in 1938 banned rowhouses. Today, 73 percent of Arlington’s residentially zoned land is single-family, meaning that if a developer razes a house, it may be replaced only with another single-family house.

Don’t let this exclusionary setup live to see its centennial. The population of the Washington region keeps growing, far outpacing its ability to provide housing for newcomers. To meet all the demand, the area needs 320,000 more housing units by 2030, by the 2019 estimate of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and it falls about 10,000 units shy of that pace every year. Home prices, accordingly, stretch beyond the reach of all but the most fortunate; the average price for a single-family home in Arlington is north of $900,000.

Cognizant of these trends, Arlington in 2020 launched the “missing middle” study to address the shortfall in housing supply. The alliterative wonk-term refers to the fact that Arlington, with a population of 240,000, has areas with medium- to high-density residential buildings — including the Rosslyn-to-Ballston corridor — as well as single-family zones. However, dwellings in the middle of the housing spectrum — “stacked duplex, side-by-side duplex, townhouse, and low-rise multifamily” — occupy just 18 percent of the county’s residential land, the study found.

The deregulatory plan before the board would authorize the construction of multi-family units up to sixplexes on single-family-zoned properties, though developers could keep replacing single-family homes with single-family homes as well. From the start of the initiative, the county has shown restraint in describing its benefits, stating that the idea is to boost housing supply and choice, as opposed to promising a housing-affordability panacea.

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Numbers tell the story: Each unit of a duplex — with three to four bedrooms — built under the proposed rules would cost $1.1 million to $1.4 million, according to county estimates. Units in a sixplex — with one to two bedrooms — would fetch between $520,000 and $670,000. Those prices merely affirm the original motivation behind the missing-middle initiative — namely, the near extinction of reasonably priced starter homes.

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The plan’s opponents have seized on the market dynamics. Calling the plan a sop to developers, they argue that new units constructed under the liberalized regulations will hew toward the luxury category. “No wonder some people support this proposal,” said Barbara Taylor in her comments before the board. “It sounds too good to be true — and it is. Missing middle units won’t be affordable or even attainable for people who most need housing in Arlington.”

Just because the proposal won’t supply what housing experts define as “affordable housing,” however, doesn’t disqualify it as an important step toward housing affordability. By beefing up undersubscribed housing segments, the plan will provide future home buyers with the opportunity to secure a toehold in a competitive marketplace. When Dan Alban and his wife — both attorneys — went house-hunting in Arlington County in the late 2000s, for instance, they found themselves priced out of the single-family-home segment. Yet they managed to find a townhouse that they still occupy. “The whole area’s in a housing shortage, and the best way to make housing more affordable and more attainable is to build a lot more of it,” says the 44-year-old Alban.

The merits of the “missing middle” plan are irrefutable on a micro level. If a developer tears down a rickety single-family home in Arlington these days, they commonly replace it with McMansions of five to six bedrooms — monstrosities that run from $1.8 million to $2.8 million and require $430,000 in yearly income, according to the county. If the developer could, instead, opt for a fourplex, they could place on the market four units for $700,000 to $900,000 each — requiring a yearly income of $124,000 to $160,000. Those short-term benefits are a bargain for any municipality interested in equity and accessibility, and so is the long-term benefit: Downward pressure on real-estate prices as this new housing stock ages and more units are built.

None of this is to scoff at the concerns of Ms. Brittle and neighbors who oppose the Arlington plan. They have argued that the county’s infrastructure and schools are ill-equipped to handle the new residents who might populate the affected neighborhoods, and that the multiplexes will shred the tree canopy. County leaders should develop plans to address these problems in the felicitous scenario that market forces respond in earnest to the new home-building opportunities.

But the implications of the debate resound beyond Arlington. Some far-flung communities — Charlotte and Minneapolis, for example — have taken steps to undo the hammerlock of single-family zoning. Closer to home, Montgomery County has approved recommendations, though no actual zoning changes, for denser residential zoning. Good move, considering that single-family zoning is choking 96 percent of its residential land.

As dismay with out-of-reach real-estate prices stacks up across the country, there’s hope that an overdue consensus might start to harden on a key point: That America’s pastoral ideal of a home and a spacious backyard cannot coexist with thriving metro areas. Plowing forward with the fantasy will cause only more dislocation, more unsustainable mortgages and more two-hour commutes.

One San Francisco is enough.

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