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Arlington Panel Mulls Hot ‘Missing Middle’ Issue

Portland, Oregon, a frequently cited model among advocates of looser zoning to encourage less-pricey home ownership, took centerstage at an Oct. 13 panel on Arlington’s debate over “Missing Middle” at which a variety of organizations called for action to address the regional housing shortage.

Sandra Wood, principal planner at Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (who grew up in Arlington), described progress and similarities in Oregon’s controversies that include “NIMBYs” battling “YIMBYs,” exploding demand for units, rising land prices and concerns over crowded schools, loss of trees, and strained parking and stormwater infrastructure.

Her hard data were presented at a session at George Mason University’s Arlington campus titled “Exploring Missing Middle: The Economic and Market Impact of Infill Development,” sponsored by the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, GMU’s Center for Regional Analysis and its Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship.

In attendance were Arlington County board members Katie Cristol, Matt de Ferranti and Takis Karontonis, plus state Sen. Barbara Favola, along with Falls Church council member Letti Hardi and city Planning Commission members Tim Stevens and Andrea Caumont.

“Northern Virginia has been No. 1 for economic mobility in the past four decades,” said GMU business school professor Eric Maribojoc. But the market is not producing enough housing for 60,000 new residents expected next decade. Not only are prices rising, there’s been a “60 percent hike in households without children and in one-person homes,” he reported. What’s needed “is not just low-income housing but housing for all family incomes, and more diverse types,” he said. The choices are building further out (which is cheapest); building denser (most expensive); or building different (so-called gentle density). “Missing Middle” duplexes, triplexes, Maribojoc stressed, “is one way.”

In Portland as elsewhere, “families have gotten smaller and houses have gotten bigger,” said Wood, who in 20 years has worked on 30 projects amending her zoning code. Today single-family dwellings take up 43 percent of its land (or 75 percent excluding parks and industrial sites). Portland from 2010-2035 is projected to add 250,000 to its current population of 650,380.

So planners in 2015 started research for a Missing Middle initiative, aided by a new state law that took effect in July 2022 allowing duplexes everywhere and four-plexes in some areas. The city zoning code was redone to permit four-unit buildings for most lots (six units if half are regulated as affordable), and planners introduced a sliding-scale floor-to-area ratio to limit home size, Wood said, with no parking regulations. They used “multiple strategies, including fee exemptions, homelessness programs, and renter protections,” while expanding options such as cottage clusters and affordable townhouses. “Allowing more and smaller houses reduces cost” because the land cost is divided, she said.

Portland keeps the four-plexes away from “sensitive environmental places” — those prone to floods, wildfires, airport noise and future industrial development.

The result? Four-plexes are the most popular type, Wood said. Between Aug. 2021 and Aug. 2022, 196 lots were redeveloped, producing 400 extra units, 55 percent of the lots which were single-family and 45 percent Missing Middle. In addition, 279 accessory dwelling units were built. Portland projects a 28 percent drop in the displacement of “vulnerable households” over 20 years. Her office forecasts 4,000 more Missing Middle units in the next 20 years. She said she is less concerned about infrastructure impacts on schools and storm drainage than she would be if builders build infrastructure further out.

Northern Virginia faces major challenges in retaining talent to stay economically competitive in high-value services, said economist Terry Clower, professor of public policy at GMU’s Schar School. “The millennial generation is finally growing up and realizing that living above a bar is not as much fun when you have a toddler. But there’s little hope for young working families to afford getting into a home.” He flagged a 40 percent rise in mortgage costs in just the last year, and the “shock factor” of the Fed’s recent interest rate hikes after a time when “we were spoiled.” Clower said “it’s time to quit talking about it and doing something,” despite opposition from some single-family homeowners whose “favored infrastructure is a moat,” he joked. “Nothing is stronger than the fact that once folks get something, it can’t ever change. “

The characterization was echoed by Michelle Krocker, executive director of Alexandria-based Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, who bemoaned “misinformation” that feeds the discussion. “It’s as if there’s a third rail — don’t mess with single-family homeowners,” she said. “But we are experiencing a housing crisis,” she added, reporting a nationwide shortfall of 3.79 million homes, and 320,000 needed in the D.C. area. “We need affordable, multi-family and single-family—we need everything.” An AARP survey showed most Americans prefer a mixed neighborhood with transportation options close to schools, shopping centers, entertainment and green spaces, Krocker said. But there is a “zoning mismatch” between generations. She praised Arlington for “providing a road map” of research and best practices.

Some skepticism came from Charles Taylor, a developer of single-family homes by Classic Cottages, LLC, who underlined the state laws that protect “by-right” development. True, the current Missing Middle proposal allows the same lot coverage for multifamily structures. But if required “to solicit community input or appear before the board, a prudent developer would be apprehensive about taking it on,” he said. New regulations raise costs, he said, and “subjective regulations can be tough for us and for staff.” The proposals may “sound great in theory but not at the expense of clarity and predictability.”

Noting the anti-Missing Middle yard signs, Taylor said he’s still awaiting the county’s final proposal—set to come after the Nov. 8 elections. “But we’re excited,” he said. We take flak for McMansions, and have no great love for building single-family homes, which are expensive and few can afford them. If we split the costs of a four-plex, it’s good for everyone.” 

Ryan McLaughlin, CEO of the realtors group, spoke of current-day market “headwinds” — the average price in Arlington rose 4 percent over last year, to $809,000, he said.  “It’s not just Arlington but the rest of the country.” But with the Missing Middle debate raging, “All eyes are on Arlington.”