Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Whether the county board pursues “Missing Middle” housing to allow duplexes and quadruplexes in pricey neighborhoods appears central in this November’s election.

Incumbent Takis Karantonis and libertarian Adam Theo say change is needed to counter skyrocketing home prices; independents Mike Cantwell and Audrey Clement besmirch “upzoning” as an impractical fool’s errand.

If zoning regulations are loosened, the impact on social equity and home ownership for the middle class may depend on one set of players: homebuilders.

Professionals I interviewed spoke more about business feasibility than on the national debate over values and policy. The push for more “gentle density” has emerged in numerous housing-challenged regions (California proponents coined a slogan “YIMBYs, for “Yes in my back yard.”).

Opponents, led by Peter Rousselot of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, continue attacking the unfolding plan as a tool to enrich developers. The group favors apartment co-ops and non-market solutions such as community land trusts and rent vouchers for existing residents, but says, “Builders are not and never will be able to produce enough non-market rate units.”

But might some regulatory adjustments help? Jenny Lawson, board chair of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, recommends varying forms “of modest-height, increased density to meet the needs of those currently priced out of the housing ownership market. The tools and resources have not always been obvious and used,” she said, describing her group’s role as “educator and advocate” working not for developers but with “anyone committed to affordability.”
What isn’t clear yet are the price ranges of whatever new types of housing would get negotiated on the edges of long-established neighborhoods.

One veteran Arlington homebuilder who asked for anonymity sees a difference between “the reality of what people want and what county planners want.” Yes, there’s a market for smaller homes, but “everyone wants the biggest house they can get.” Over the past 15 years, 90 — 95 percent wanted finished basements, nine-foot ceilings, a bedroom (even a bathroom) for each kid, he said. “I know there’s need for missing middle, but density in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is the way to do that. Duplexes that look like single-family homes would be expensive, and land prices would go up.”
More receptive to easing decades-old restrictions on duplexes is Larry Smith of Arlington Green Homes LLC. The county’s new interest “is a good thing, but if they want success, it has to be in certain areas where you already have a lot of multi-family structures.” He cites Wilson Blvd., for example, near George Mason Dr. “If you go into a single-family-home residential neighborhood, neighbors are going to get upset. There’s very little parking, and a quadruplex with four families could add eight cars, and it changes the character.”

Citing bad experiences with county delays in permits that cost him in bank loans, Smith says multi-family units could “be profitable and builders would do it” through economies of scale, provided the county “streamlines the approval process.”

Noemi Riveira, director of real estate development for the nonprofit multi-plex builder HabitatNOVA, says her team “would take advantage” of eased zoning restrictions to help the missing middle. “However, for-profit developers and homebuilders will also take advantage and potentially further increase land prices,” she predicted. “If the aim is to create more opportunities for first-time homebuyers, the increase in density allowed should be coupled with affordability of the units.”

It was fun last Saturday to see musicians and food trucks at the opening of the Long Bridge Aquatics and Fitness Center.

I toured the spectator seating in the three-part Boeing 50-meter pool, the exercise gym and leisure pool. A wall display gives a history of the Potomac-side area from “Nacotchtank to Gambling Dens” that also details planning and construction of the complex. A plaque honors visionary environmentalist Carrie Johnson.

The modern “All-Gender Bathrooms” save a walk. But the cavernous facility is quite a hike from the Crystal City Metro, on a route sorely in need of directional signs.