Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The religious element in the debate over Missing Middle housing was on dramatic display November 17th, as 266 advocates packed the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.

    Put on by the Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement—a coalition of 50 faith and civic groups—the evening of speakers, music and song came amid continued angry division over the proposal to allow more multi-family structures in single-family-zoned neighborhoods. The Arlington Committee of 100 cancelled its November 9th examination of the topic “because it found itself, at the last minute, unable to present a high-quality, balanced program,” I was told.

  And that was before anyone knew the results of the November 8th election that resoundingly reelected pro-Missing-Middle county board member Matt de Ferranti. Though interpretations differ, Sun-Gazette editor Scott McCaffrey and former county treasurer Frank O’Leary agreed that the anti-Missing Middle voter sentiment was not in  evidence.

    The groups excited by the plan filed into the Unitarian sanctuary to drumming, hymns and call-and-response rituals from the chancel. Their roll call included congregants for Our Lady Queen of Peace (50 attendees), the Unitarians (45), the NAACP (20) and the YIMBYs of Arlington (20). Also represented were St. Mary’s and St. George’s Episcopal churches; Trinity, Clarendon and Arlington Presbyterian churches; NOVA Catholics; Rock Spring Congregational; Temple Rodef Shalom; Iglesia Episcopal San Jose; the Dar AL-Hijrah Islamic Center; the League of Women Voters, Juntos en Justicia; CASA Mariflor, Aspire Afterschool Learning; and staff and teachers from Arlington Public Schools.

          Unsuccessful independent county board candidate Adam Theo was there, telling me he viewed his 10 percent of the vote as “a cherry on top” of the push for Missing Middle.

      “When all the voices sing out loud, it can be done!” sang the gathering, led by ushers in purple shirts reading, “The Voice: Building Power in We the People.” Their pastor Carol Thomas Cissel said, “We gather to resist and reject injustice,” backing a commitment to “look at how all pieces of Arlington housing fit together.”

    Policy analysis came from Unitarian Pat Findikoglu, citing the “general wealth gap” and housing demand that outweighs supply.

     Pentagon City renter Sara Mitchell, studying to become a mental health professional, worried about “getting priced out of the county.” And Chip Gurkin, a PTA dad and soccer coach, said he “loves his duplex in the Bluemont neighborhood. It’s easy to clean, and it takes only 10 minutes to mow the grass.”

    Rev. Ashley Goff of the virtual Arlington Presbyterian asked board members present to “take a prophetic stance” and include the controversial six-and eight-plex buildings. Board member Christian Dorsey welcomed the hope demonstrated by the “diverse” roll call before shifting to the practical. Zoning in the past “was weaponized” to “separate us,” he said, “and it makes no sense to have three-fourths of the land not included” in efforts to rebalance. “The details are well-understood, and we know the path. But it’s not always quick.”

Asked to respond, Peter Rousselot of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, told me that, while churches can play an important role, ASF’s concern is the “degree to which the participants in the event may be supporting the government’s proposal because they believe it will add racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic diversity, or add affordable housing.” ASF’s research “has demonstrated that none of these desirable outcomes will occur.”

       Board member Libby Garvey, a Quaker, said she was “lifted up” by the poems and songs. “There’s been a lot of catastrophizing, and change is tough,” she said. “Please stay with us. I’m not saying we will do it all at once, but we will get it done.”

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  A Halls Hill congregation teamed with the county on a historic marker at a notable graveyard. On November 20th, two dozen gathered for a Sunday afternoon “unveiling” at Mt. Salvation Baptist Church.

  Founded in 1884 by African Americans who bought the Culpeper Street land for $80, the church became the burial site for 89 community members—among them influential pastor Deacon Moses Pelham (1874 —1947).

“We have toiled for years, but God sees our strength,” proclaimed parishioner Beryl Robinson. County board member Katie Cristol, recalling the board’s February vote, honored the church as a “guardian” of a monument to a “support system” from the days when that congregation was excluded.