Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

A collision is coming, with racial overtones, over the county’s long-in-preparation initiative on missing middle housing. That effort to loosen zoning to permit more duplexes and other less-pricey multi-family structures will figure even sooner as planners finalize plans for reimagining Langston Blvd.


On March 7, the NAACP’s Arlington Branch sent the county board a preemptive strike: “As the county moves forward with plans to affirmatively further fair housing, we urge [it] to remember our community’s history—specifically, Arlington’s history of racist, exclusionary housing policies,” its officers wrote in a plea to ease the code’s preference for single-family homes. “To reverse this shameful legacy and remedy the persistent effects of decades of discrimination against many of our most vulnerable residents, we call on the board to reform zoning laws to give residents of color better access to a wider variety of housing at lower cost.”


A contrary view from Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future came in a March 6 letter asking that the board to halt Langston Blvd. planning to better forecast the impact. Asked to respond to the NAACP, ASF leader Peter Rousselot said he shares its “goal to encourage diversity, better access to housing and undoing the horrible legacy of housing discrimination. But even the Arlington government has admitted that `Missing Middle’ housing in single-family neighborhoods will not provide affordability where it is needed most at the lower-income levels.”


The racial roots of Arlington’s housing patterns were explored March 10 at Marymount University, in an Arlington Historical Society talk on ongoing academic research titled “Mapping Exclusion in Arlington.”


Kristin Neun, a specialist in housing law, described a “calm before the storm.” That was in 1900, when Arlington had a population of 6,430, of whom 2,467 were Black. “It was a fairly equal ratio,” she said, with both communities seeing “growth in purchasing power and homeownership.“


In 1902, the nascent Byrd Machine Democrats took over Richmond, bringing a new constitution and focus on segregation and homogeneity, Neun said. That formed the “backdrop for racial covenants,” the idea that both races “do better” separately. Hundreds of “bargain and sale” deeds stipulated that a property could “not be sold, leased or rented to any one not of the Caucasian race.” (Exceptions for “domestic servants of a different race.”) Similar standardized wording appeared in broader “deeds of dedication” for subdivision developers.


The principles were reinforced at local, state and federal levels — including under the 1930s New Deal’s Home Homeowners Loan Corp. and Federal Housing Administration. The housing covenants continued with the 1948 GI Bill until banned by the 1968 Fair Housing Act.


Arlington’s 1930 zoning ordinance codified the preference for single-family homes, later baked into the 1961 General Land Use Plan.


Marymount sociology professor Janine DeWitt listed subdivisions with racial covenants she found so far: Arlington Forest, Bellevue Forest, Country Club View, Jackson Terrace, Lyon Village, Lyon Park, Maywood, Barcroft Forest, Virginia Highlands, Flower Gardens, Allencrest, Woodlawn and Madison Manor.


Samia Byrd, the county’s chief race and equity officer, said, “The majority of Arlington was restricted to single-family detached homes,” and the Black population decreased significantly by 1950. “It is helpful to acknowledge redlining, blockbusting, and blacklisting built on this legacy of who should not be neighbors.” That “institutionalized, structural racism” continues, she said. And yes, that history has entered the discussion of Missing Middle policymaking.


Residential Arlington earned a mention (sort of) in the latest biography of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.


Of course the volume by Princeton University Professor Allen Guelzo provides great detail on Arlington House, with fresh takes on treatment of the enslaved by both Lee and his father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis.


But in his epilogue, the historian attempts to note Arlington Public Schools’ 2019 change of our high school’s name from Washington-Lee to Washington-Liberty. Alas, his description of the school as being “a few miles from Stratford Hall” confused our W-L with a high school in Westmoreland County that retains the name Washington & Lee.