After months—for some, years—of often-angry debate, the Arlington County Board is set March 18 for a final vote on a plan to open zoning to more multi-family housing types countywide under the initiative short-handed as Missing Middle.
More than 70 speakers showed up in-person or virtually at the Planning Commission last week before that advisory body of specialists voted 8-0 (two abstentions) to recommend a relatively permissive version to the five-member county board. Passage appears likely, perhaps with adjustments.
The endgame—which is being monitored by policymakers in Falls Church and around the region—comes amid a national backdrop of debates over a shortage of available housing both for low-income renters and aspiring middle-class homeowners. The budget released last week by the Biden White House includes $10 billion for “planning and housing capital grants to incentivize state and local jurisdictions to expand supply and increase housing choice by reducing barriers … such as restrictive zoning and burdensome permitting processes.”
In Washington State, the House last week passed a bill to legalize duplexes or fourplexes “in almost every neighborhood of every city in Washington,” the Seattle Times reported. Locally, prominent zoning attorney Jon Kinney and 1980s Housing Commission chair Art Hauptman released a paper calling for a “middle ground” aimed at heading off prolonged controversy in Arlington by focusing on “producing affordable multi-family units along bus routes and heavily-traveled secondary roads as well as selected single-family neighborhoods.”
Both organized and individual critics of the plan attended the Planning Commission’s two-evening hearing, some waving signs on camera behind the speakers with slogans such as “Let Arlingtonians Decide.” Chair Devanshi Patel assured speakers they could control the space behind them as they spoke.
The Missing Middle framework to encourage “expanded housing options,” part of the county’s broader affordable housing planning, would amend the 1961 General Land Use Plan to “address inequities in housing” to pursue “economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and neighborhood vibrancy,” said Arlington Principal Planner Matthew Ladd. Though County Manager Mark Schwartz steered clear of recommendations on some sub-issues, it was left to the commission to forward recommendations on lot coverage, annual caps on permits, tree canopy and parking requirements. Its plan includes preparation of a “design book” to inspire builders attempting multi-family structures and help them become less “risk-averse.” Progress of the initiative would be tracked—including its impact on racial equity.
The commission’s recommendations would allow structures up to six units in areas currently confined to single-family homes with no special restrictions on six-plexes; no parking mandates for lots near public transit; and no recommendations on the board’s current plan to cap permits for multi-family projects at 58 per year.
Opponents reiterated their argument that the plan won’t achieve its goals given the high price of land. Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency said the commission “fails to plan by recommending the most extreme missing middle options” in a vote that “guarantees the community will continue to be torn apart.” Terri Armao, saying she represents 170 opponents in the Penrose neighborhood, warned that rezoning during a climate crisis would remove trees, replacements for which take 20-50 years to grow.
In a hint of compromise, the Arlington Tree Action Group issued a statement urging elected officials to add a “a more practical benchmark” to raise replanting requirements on builders of new housing types, which vary by lot category.
Civil engineer Marlee Franzen blasted expected expenses for new sidewalks and what she called a “lack of planning” that “breaks my heart.” She compared the leaders’ “rush” to a decision to the space shuttle disaster when engineers tried to warn top officials of a need for a pause.
YIMBYs of NoVa, calculating that 50 of 72 speakers favored Missing Middle, said “commission deliberations reflected a deep understanding of the need for more accessible-priced housing options in Arlington, as well as confidence in county staff’s thorough, well-defined plan to adapt Arlington to the exciting growth Missing Middle Housing will usher in.” Member and former county board candidate Adam Theo said suggestions to allow multi-family units only near transit are “deliberately designed to keep North Arlington from contributing its fair share.”
Clarendon Presbyterian minister Alice Rose Tewell said the anti-Missing Middle signs around the county “make me feel unwelcome” and recall the days of racial redlining. Rosalind Reischer, granddaughter of 1970s-80s county board leader Ellen Bozman, for whom the government building is named, said her late grandmother would have backed the plan. Danielle Arigoni, managing director for policy and solutions at the National Housing Trust, decried “misinformation and noise.” She said senior citizens want this policy and won’t be displaced, calling Missing Middle an “essential precursor” to create supply before future government policy can help with affordability.
The commissioners who abstained were Denyse “Nia” Bagley and Leonardo Sarli, who admitted to struggling with the issue. He cited “unforced errors we could have avoided along the way. I would ask the county board to avoid a similar process in the future and not put the cart in front of the horse, where we had several years of hypothetical planning and a five-week process once we actually got to the substance.”
Chair Patel disagreed, saying, “Staff has labored on this for many, many years, and many, many hundreds of hours have been put into this process — including lots of hours by this commission.” All five county board members are on record supporting some version of Missing Middle, dividing on the earlier plan to allow projects of up to eight units by-right, which was ruled out 3-2 in January.