Guest Commentary, Local Commentary

Falls Church’s Railroad Cottages Cited in Arlington’s Housing Debate

Falls Church city’s award-winning but controversial set of Railroad Cottages was cited by Arlington housing specialists in a Sept. 14 “informational session,” part of the county’s deepening examination of the hotly debated proposal to boost “missing middle” housing.

     Eric Maribojoc, executive director of the George Mason University Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship, praised as a possible model for Arlington the pilot project near the bike path off of West Broad St. With city council approval of special zoning in 2017, planners took land normally for four single-family homes and created smaller homes for 10 senior citizen owners in more densely situated units. The $700-000-$800,000 price points, with future economies of scale, Maribojoc suggested, could be reduced in other projects.

    The televised session led by board chair Katie Cristol was a chance for three experts to weigh in on “what type of housing Arlington will have and at what cost,” she said. It was the first of three such panels on top of the series of “community conversations” on missing middle that—due to popular demand–have been expanded to 20.

    Cristol stressed that the movement to allow greater density and increase homeownership for buyers with middling incomes is a “regional and national issue.” The Biden administration, she noted, is confronting the shortage of housing supply for several income groups.

       As a highly sought-after domicile, Arlington has seen its real estate prices skyrocket. Under current zoning, builders are tearing down three-bedroom, 1,300-square-feet older homes and replacing them with 5,500-square-feet houses at $2 million, Maribojoc generalized. Arlington is expected to gain 60,000 new residents in the next 20 years.

    “People are being pushed out,” added Callie Seltzer, an urban planner at HRA Advisors. “The situation is very different from 20-30 years ago.”

      Realtor Miranda Carter said her work shows homebuying for many clients is now “cost-prohibitive, so people are moving outside of Arlington in the last couple of years, with no end in sight.”

    Though zoning changes to allow more housing types across the county is “just one tool in the toolbox,” the approach has shown success in mixed-housing-type communities such as Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md., and Somerville, Mass., the panelists said. Types suggested in Arlington’s proposed framework would hearken back to the 19th century “starter homes” built on high-density streets in Boston, Chicago and Montreal, they added.

       The specialists agreed that impact from rezoning for missing middle “would not be radical” and won’t happen “overnight,” as Seltzer said. With perhaps only 20 out of the annual 100 teardowns projected to convert to multi-family per year, most people in single-family neighborhoods “won’t even see it on your own block,” she said. “Building in Arlington is difficult and expensive,” she added. The changes would be gradual, nuanced, as has occurred in Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis. But changes are coming with or without zoning reform, she said.

       All three challenged the common perception that building different housing types would reduce the value of single-family homes. “Studies show that the impact of multi-family housing on single-family home values is slightly positive, or neutral,” Maribojoc said. Carter doesn’t see “home values declining at all,” even when a multi-family building is built next door. But displacement and rising taxes will continue, she said. She’s more worried that after reforms, developers would build only duplexes and townhomes, but nothing higher.

      Asked why Missing Middle structures can’t be concentrated solely in existing zones such as along Columbia Pike, Langston Blvd. and the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Seltzer said: “There is not enough land in those places to even inch toward the need. You have to go countywide.”

      The critics at Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future on Sept. 9 published in-depth answers to their skeptical questions from county board candidates. Matt de Ferranti, the incumbent Democrat, favors missing middle to improve equity, but opposes eight-plex units. At a Sept. 7 candidates forum, he gave ground to those who feel the county’s public engagement process has been insufficient.

     Independent Audrey Clement continued to deliver scathing attacks on the missing middle “scheme,” while independent Adam Theo enthusiastically defended the approach.

    Critics in Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency on Sept. 12 issued a statement titled “popular myths debunked.” They challenged county planners’ claims that duplexes and triplexes will be “family sized,” and “affordable,” or that the changes would actually increase homeownership. AFUT challenged the county to focus instead on curbing teardowns of old single-family homes, encouraged by 2005 zoning changes that raised allowable building heights and lot coverage.

     Boosters of the missing middle proposal, led by YIMBYS of Northern Virginia, have encouraged backers to weigh in with the county board sessions. They are planning to assemble, with allies in the NAACP and Sierra Club, for a picnic in Crystal City’s Virginia Highlands Park Sept. 25.