Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

As home prices rise in our white-hot real estate market — and 1950s ramblers are bulldozed by luxury builders — housing activists have intensified worries over the “missing middle” of choices for the middle class.

On Oct. 28. county staff assigned to the “Housing Arlington” initiative rolled out phase one of a promised study of the potential for “up-zoning.” That multi-pronged policy approach to encouraging smaller and more temperately priced duplexes and garden apartments (on pricey land) has hit resistance from one group of free-market advocates.

So far, the response from officials and affordable housing boosters is: more study. And boy, are those studies complicated.

At the community engagement rollout attended virtually by 180 (overshadowed somewhat by the pandemic and a landmark election), staff made clear that housing challenges loop in broader issues: race and equity, affordable (subsidized) housing, neighborhood investments, school populations, stormwater management and tree canopy protections. The study will answer four key questions: Who benefits? Who is burdened? Who is left out? How do we know?

“We can’t stop regional growth,” the presenters said, “but we can shift gears to manage its impact.”

An online poll taken during the rollout showed 74 percent saying Arlington should take steps to address neighborhood change, and 15 percent saying no, with 11 percent undecided.

Part of the problem, said a response from the nonprofit Alliance for Housing Solutions, goes back to the 1930s zoning regime, which bans duplexes and rowhouses in single-family residential areas. As a result, only 6 percent of Arlington’s 116,000 homes are duplexes (side-by-side or stacked) or town houses (fee simple, or legally independent), and another 24 percent are of limited family-size (townhouses with garden-style condos, or small apartments).

What might be “middle class” houses are permitted only in selected areas. And a whopping 73.2 percent of Arlington’s residential land is zoned for the most expensive housing: detached single-family homes, the alliance notes. Those pricier houses form 23.9 percent of the county’s housing stock, while 46.9 percent is mid- or-high rise multifamily housing. In sum, only 29.2 percent of current housing stock meets “missing middle” criteria — the bulk of which is in declining stock of older low-rise garden-style apartments.
Reform “would be incremental,” the alliance recommends, “and with the right incentives and guidelines, it can be done tastefully to maintain and improve the overall sense of place in the neighborhoods we love.”

Opposing up-zoning are the Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future. Spokesman Peter Rousselot told me he has been sharing criticisms with civic associations. Implementing what advocates call “gentle density” will “add cars and on-street parking; cover lots fully and bring much taller buildings. It will add runoff, flooding and kill trees,” the group argued. The county’s 8.6 percent rental vacancy rate proves there is “no dire housing shortage.” Allowing more density will do nothing to stop existing middle garden units from being razed, and homeowners on fixed incomes will struggle with resulting tax bills, the group said.

Rousselot said the study, scheduled to reach phase three (recommending changes in zoning) around 2022, is “precooked.” It doesn’t project the impact on schools, parks, traffic, tree canopy, services or taxes. “Given the resources it is sinking into the study, he said, “county government must be planning a lot of up-zoning, but because Housing Arlington currently is unwilling to say exactly where, the study lacks the specificity that might otherwise galvanize residents.”

Successful census: The county board on Oct. 23 gave the staff, volunteers and the community deserved praise for completing our share of the national 2020 headcount. “Arlington is thrilled to report that as of October 15, an estimated 99.98 percent of Arlington households had been counted,” read the statement.

But only a week earlier, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that the same 99.98 response rate was achieved nationwide — during a pandemic and a series of hurricanes. Even so, having seen all the signage and booster posters encouraging participation, you have to admire our local spirit.