Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The roaring real estate market in the greater Arlington-Amazon area adds intrigue to the swelling debate over “missing middle” housing.

One solution being broached is for Arlingtonians to seek more reasonably priced dwellings — out in Fairfax.
Among several presentations on this intricate policy topic was the May 12 Committee of 100 panel featuring three specialists and titled “Can Arlington Solve Missing Middle Housing on its Own?” Their regional examination of affordability, equity, revenue and the environment came as county staff continue soundings of public sentiment in preparation for a study next year that may advocate regulatory changes to increase housing density through “upzoning.”

All five county board members have expressed commitment to improving economic and racial diversity in our tonier neighborhoods. They’re aware of projections that Arlington’s population will grow from 238,476 in 2021 to 301,200 by 2045. New planning director Anthony Fusarelli Jr. has expressed a desire to go beyond free market policy. And the vision of the Lee Highway Alliance, said director Ginger Brown, is “a range of housing; how the policy is implemented and regulated is extremely important.”

But there is little consensus on whether allowing middle-class duplexes and quadroplexes in single-family-home neighborhoods is a public good.

Least encouraging was Wharton School economist Jon Huntley. He noted 2017 data showing that Arlington gained 58 townhouses (averaging $1.02 million each), 35 stacked condos ($700,000-800,000) eight duplexes ($1.05 million) — and no garden apartments. “Builders will build only if it’s profitable,” he noted, and barring dramatic changes in land values, missing middle houses — at say $500,000 — are not as doable for Arlington as they are in parts of Fairfax and Montgomery County.

Aakash Thakkar, executive vice president at the Bethesda-based builder EYA LLC, noted that “folks with a lot of money will always have housing options.” But Arlington should waste no time in at least starting a transition to a more urban style. Thakkar touted his company’s creation of 87 high-density units in townhouses beside a park behind the Clarendon Market Commons (they sell for over $1 million). “People want to be in Arlington to be near jobs,” he said. And though Arlington “has done a wonderful job” along the Metro corridor, high-density concrete is expensive. “We can better utilize our land to drive up supply, reduce prices and be better stewards of the environment.”

Most enthusiastic for Arlington action was Michael Spotts, president of Neighborhood Fundamentals LLC and a board member for the Alliance for Housing Solutions.

Upzoning “does not mean banning single family homes,” he said, and missing middle housing is “one piece of an overall puzzle.” But “people have to live somewhere,” and if all density growth takes place in outlying regions, “there are environmental consequences.” Paving over land and cutting forests out in Fairfax “has an impact on Arlington,” Spotts warned. “Arlington can’t solve it on its own, but some middle housing is good for the county and region.”

Increasingly vocal opponents of upzoning, in Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, said higher-density housing strains schools and roads, threatens flood control and won’t deliver lower prices. Less-civil online critics defend so-called “snob zoning” by arguing wealthier people have earned exclusive enjoyment of their quiet single-family enclaves.

Thakkar hears this pushback in Chevy Chase. “But the counter-argument is that 100 years ago those subdivisions were 100-acre farms,” he said. Perhaps “single family homes were built for a different time.”

The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, in new digs co-locating with the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, opened an exhibit on the 1960 lunch counter civil rights demonstrations.

Those high-impact events, organized by Black and White activists, challenged segregation at our local Drug Fair, People’s Drugs, Woolworth’s and Howard Johnson’s restaurants.

Dramatic photos of peaceful confrontations, executed by Dion Diamond (now in D.C.) and Joan Mulholland (still in Arlington) among others, include one showing harassment by members of the American Nazi Party. Despite initial resistance, Virginia laws soon changed and store managers mended their ways.