Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

With the “Amazon effect” jacking up home prices, Arlington is revving up a long-expected battle over residential zoning.

Years after county board candidates ran on addressing the “missing middle” in affordable housing, the county manager from April-June conducted a citizen engagement “brainstorming” for public and private solutions called “Housing Arlington.”

Submitted ideas on the desirability of “upzoning” single-family neighborhoods to allow greater density are being tabulated. Arlington could join localities such as Minneapolis and Seattle in requiring at least some new allowances for modestly priced duplexes and accessory dwelling units. As the concept could become an issue in the 2020 presidential election, I expect fireworks.

County board member Katie Cristol told me “people are nervous that it means high-rises or commercial buildings in the middle of their single-family neighborhood.” But what’s really being discussed are “new forms that are compatible,” four tiny homes sharing a common green space (“quads”), for example, or duplexes and townhomes like those in her Douglas Park neighborhood.

“One of the nice things about Arlington is that most people would welcome neighbors of different backgrounds,” Cristol said. “But there’s a disconnect between desire for more diversity” and understanding of the forces that segregated neighborhoods. “On balance, people love their neighborhoods, but there’s fear of change.”

Among the enthusiasts for upzoning is Michelle McDonough Winters, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Housing Solutions. “The need for missing-middle housing types is vast – moderate- and middle-income households just can’t afford the large single-family homes going up in our communities today,” she said. She cites decades of history that included racist covenants in deeds. “Originally, zoning was mainly intended to keep industrial and commercial areas separate from residential areas. But it morphed into what we have today where different housing types were separated from one another, often to protect property values, keep out `undesirables’ and prevent neighborhoods from changing.”

But critics warn of a downside to allowing duplexes and so-called “mother-in-law apartments” (already permitted but scarce) in high-end areas to achieve affordability.

Upzoning could “cause environmental consequences of increased impervious surfaces, tree and vegetation loss, stormwater runoff, increased housing costs, and add to various infrastructure and county service issues, including costs of new schools,” said Margie Bell, who organized public comments on behalf of the Arlington Tree Action Group.

“Snob zoning” is what some critics are accused of defending. “But I find Arlington more inclusive in zoning than lots of other communities,” said prominent zoning attorney Jonathan Kinney. “Change can be threatening, particularly if people are not sure what it means,” he told me, pointing to the 2009 fight over allowing accessory dwelling units and fears of excess that were never borne out.

Zoning that allows two or more houses per lot exists in different sections of Arlington—Virginia Square, Westover and parts of Green Valley, Kinney said. But most single-family areas don’t allow it, “which is why developers don’t build them.” Because of changing habits, “people want a certain-size house,” Kinney added, alluding to the builders’ preference for McMansions.

“But if you really want to change the market, you have to start offering alternatives,” he said.

Lenders might even prefer to see two or three houses on a lot at a lower price, he said. “And I see no reason why the builders wouldn’t — once it got started.”

On Saturday I joined concerned shoppers at Ayers Variety and Hardware and the Westover Market/Beer Garden — both of which got clobbered by the July 8 flash flooding.

The merchants braved electrical outages and major loss of merchandise. Only the beer garden closed but is now back with music.

Ayers struggled but stayed faithful. Co-owner Wilma Kaplan told me, just before the cash register temporarily froze in her darkened store, that 2019 was not shaping up as a good year. But she and her husband — both in their 80s — have long served customers when the elements fail, even if they make change using a cigar box.