It took a progressive Virginia suburb 8 years to let developers build apartments instead of single-family houses. It shows how hard it is to build middle-class housing in the US.
A growing number of communities are upzoning single-family neighborhoods to allow more housing options.
Arlington, Virginia, finally passed a "missing middle" housing policy after years of debate.
The policy change is just the first step in creating much needed new housing.
As Marjorie Green plans for the future, she knows she and her husband, both retired, won't be able to stay in the single-family detached home in North Arlington, Virginia, they've called home for almost 20 years. The house doesn't have a bedroom or bathroom on the first floor, which they'll eventually need as they age.
The only realistic option for them in Arlington, a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., is to move into a condo that will also accommodate their two dogs. In Arlington, there aren't many options between a single-family home — the median price of which has climbed to $1.13 million — and large apartment complexes.
But on Wednesday, the Arlington County board finally approved a highly fraught, years-long effort to "upzone" all single-family neighborhoods — eight years after the idea was first considered. The policy will legalize the construction of so-called "missing middle" housing — townhouses, duplexes, and other multi-family buildings up to six units — helping build "gentle density."
Green, not to be confused with GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, has spent years advocating for denser and more affordable housing as the Arlington leader of Virginians for Organized Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), a community organizing group that supports social justice initiatives. She and her husband would like to take advantage of the upzoning by replacing their house with a multi-unit building with accessible units, one of which they could live in.
"We could live in a ground floor unit and still have some backyard space for our dogs," Green, who's 65, told Insider. "We could have some other people in the building, and our daughters might have an investment that then they could use to help them buy a home someday."
Across the country, middle-income housing is disappearing. Modest single-family homes are being torn down and replaced with larger, more expensive houses. A housing shortage, rising land prices and construction costs, and strict zoning regulations have made it near-impossible in many places for young families to find starter homes and seniors to find accessible housing.
Arlington is just the latest community to address missing middle housing as a part of a broader national reckoning. Over the last few years, states and localities across the country have begun passing laws to increase density. A diverse set of cities and states, including Minneapolis and Maine, have ended single-family zoning. Oregon passed a law in 2018 allowing multi-family home construction across single-family neighborhoods in most cities. In 2021, California legalized the construction of up to four new houses on most single-family lots.
But the process of upzoning is slow and highly-charged, even in progressive communities with a dire need for housing. In Arlington, county board hearings have turned into hours-long public debates and divided the community. On Saturday, almost 250 residents signed up to debate the proposal at a public hearing, forcing the board to bump the final vote to Wednesday.
"It has become this huge community issue – neighbors against neighbors. I mean, it has gotten quite ugly," Alice Hogan, a longtime Arlington resident and housing policy consultant for the pro-missing middle housing Alliance for Housing Solutions, told Insider. "And it's quite sad because the scope and size of this program is minuscule compared to the problem we really need to be facing."
A heated debate over housing density
Arlington has long been a wealthy, desirable suburb with good public schools and low rates of crime. But the county, about three-quarters of which is currently zoned for single-family housing, is in the midst of a major boom. Amazon selected the county as the home of its HQ2 in 2018, while Nestle, Boeing, and other major companies and government contractors have attracted a steady stream of high-income residents.
In 2015, the county adopted its Affordable Housing Master Plan, identifying middle-income housing as a key area for growth. Three years ago, the county began studying missing middle housing in earnest.
Advocates have long pushed a simple message: density is necessary and key to affordability.
"Multifamily buildings and the people who live in them are not a burden and they're not a danger, they are a good thing to have," said Jane Fiegen Green, president of YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, a non-profit that advocates for more and denser housing. "There is no affordable housing on any level of the income spectrum without density. "YIMBY" stands for "Yes In My Backyard" and was created in response to the anti-development "NIMBY," which stands for "Not In My Backyard."
They also point to the county's history of exclusionary zoning laws designed to keep Black families out of white, single-family neighborhoods.
Across the country, critics of increasing housing density in single family neighborhoods are disproportionately older, wealthier, white homeowners. A survey released by the county last year found nearly 80% of homeowners opposed the missing middle policy and about 70% of renters supported it.
Advocates of missing middle housing say there's a deep generational gap when it comes to housing density. Older residents, many of whom have owned single-family homes in the community for decades, are fearful of their neighborhoods changing.
"I'm disappointed that much of the major pushback is coming from my generation," Marjorie Green said. "We were the 'we're going to change the world' generation and in fact, now that we have a foothold in leafy suburban neighborhoods, many of us are saying, no, wait a minute, don't let that change impact us too much."
But seniors are among those who could benefit the most from having new, smaller accessible housing in their neighborhoods.
Critics of upzoning argue the increased density will lead to school crowding, reduced green space, and increased traffic, among other concerns.
In an overwhelmingly Democratic county, the politics don't code neatly as red or blue. Fiegen Green said many Democratic officials have avoided the issue and not taken a side.
Some Democrats, like Arlington County Board candidate Natalie Roy, are deeply opposed to the missing middle effort. Roy, who's also a realtor, argued that the policy change won't lead to desperately needed affordable housing for low-income residents. Her alternative housing plan involves offering more financial assistance to lower-income residents and more housing opportunities for seniors, but wouldn't create much new supply.
Roy pointed to the fact that the county is already among the most densely populated in the country.
"My goal is not density, it is affordability and diversity," she said. "We do have high density exactly where it should be in Arlington — around transit corridors. We are a national model for it."
She insisted that the missing middle housing initiative "is about getting rid of single-family homes."
Roy pointed to a proposal to build three new townhomes on a single family lot in the expensive Lyon Park neighborhood. The new homes, each with 2,200 square feet of living space and a garage, would be on the market in late 2024 for $1.2 million. The pricey new housing, she argued, shows how upzoning won't serve middle class families.
But upzoning supporters and experts say the additional supply of even high-end homes helps alleviate demand on existing housing.
"I don't know how you can argue against the fact that if a little brick house goes down and a mansion comes up, you've not added anything to the market," Pat Findikoglu, a retired Arlington public school teacher and volunteer for VOICE, told Insider. "If a little brick house goes down and a quad goes up, you've added three extra units."
The initiative's proponents concede that upzoning won't come close to solving the county's shortage of affordable housing. But they argue that upzoning will allow more housing options across the spectrum of incomes and, over time, offer more abundant and affordable options. And they point to the county's separate efforts to build housing for low-income renters and homeowners.
"What I've come to understand is, it's not enough to have housing for the poorest of the poor," Findikoglu said. "We need abundant housing at every single level."
A long road to increasing housing density
Advocates say that zoning reform is just a first, incremental step toward denser, and ultimately more affordable, neighborhoods. Cities and states that have ended single-family zoning haven't necessarily seen much new building. Additional regulatory changes are often necessary to incentivize new construction.
David Garcia, policy director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, and his team of researchers found that California's 2021 upzoning law could enable 700,000 new homes. But the actual amount of new construction will be far lower because of other land-use constraints, including height restrictions and parking requirements.
In Minneapolis, which was the first US city to legalize multi-unit buildings on single-family lots, few new triplexes have been built because the land use reforms haven't been made. But Portland, Oregon — which now allows up to four-unit buildings on previously single-family lots — also changed their codes to allow the new structures to be larger than single-family homes.
"That takes some time and some thought and it's not as easy as taking one vote," Garcia told Insider. "You have to think comprehensively about the suite of land use policies that impact the single family zones, not just the base zoning allowances."
Despite the massive effort it took to pass missing middle housing, Arlington officials predict change will be slow and limited.
"This will probably bring between 20 and 50 new developments a year," Hogan said. "I mean, a tiny drop in the bucket."
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