Competing signs and loud vocalizations characterized the deep divide between the proponents and opponents of the Arlington County Missing Middle Housing Study: Expanding Housing Choice at the June 18, 2022 County Board meeting. The study recommended the Board approve a countywide change from single to multi-family zoning, allowing up to 8-plexes in all residential areas that do not already permit it. Currently in 79 percent of the County’s residential land area, only single detached housing is permitted.
Large groups sat on opposite sides of the room waiting a turn to speak in the public comment period before the regularly scheduled Board meeting. Due to the rules governing County Board meetings specifying one speaker per topic, few speakers were able to be heard and one speaker cut off before she could speak about the impact of the draft proposal on the tree canopy.
Opinions ranged widely from those who support the proposed zoning change to those who support additional housing for seniors, young families and essential workers but not necessarily this approach. Many want additional study of the impact of storm sewage, loss of tree canopy, additional school students and increased density before the zoning changes, instead of afterwards. Others criticize the process which they say broke promises about the direction the County was heading and surprised community members with the recommendation.
Missing Middle Housing is defined as housing choices between single family housing and high rise apartments. The efforts to review missing middle housing and whether and how it might work for Arlington began with the announcement on December 18, 2019 of a three-phase study. The framework “will start from a blank slate with no proposed policy or zoning changes. A county led team will use inclusive public engagement process, a cross-disciplinary team of experts, extensive data collection and analysis and an iterative design process to create study recommendations for the Board to consider.”
County staff’s report to the County Board emphasized that “neither an across-the-board rezoning nor an elimination of single-family zoning would be the right fit for Arlington.”
On April 28, 2022 Arlington County released its Missing Middle Housing Study (MMHS) Phase II report with a priority to reduce housing costs, add more housing supply and add housing options that reflect the needs of the whole community. The presentation indicated “expected outcome is a wider range of housing types at lower prices than what is currently available; new housing types would be attainable for households with incomes $108,000-$200,000….MMM could be attainable to up to 39% of Black or African American households, 39% of Hispanic or Latino households and 60 percent of Asian households in the Washington Metro area.”
Jane Green, President of YIMBYS (Yes in My Backyard) of NOVA, says they very much support this Missing Middle proposal. She says she thinks it will serve a lot of young people who are in an apartment not quite big enough for their families who want to stay in Arlington and retirees who don’t need a 4-5 bedroom house anymore. “Many people feel stuck in the house they have because they can’t find anything available. We need more flexibility to create what people want.” She says this changes how we view multi-family buildings. Green says she thinks people who are established— whiter, richer and older think they should be able to determine what happens. “I think we should look forward to who’s coming.” Green adds that this is part of a nationwide effort to address exclusionary zoning and rethink it.
Peter Rousselet, on the leadership team of Arlingtonians for our Sustainable Future (ASF), an anti-density advocacy group, says this plan does zero to bring the diversity many people seek or to provide options for essential workers in Arlington who currently live outside the County because they can’t afford to live in Arlington. The income level which would be required to live in these units is above what teachers, police and firefighters make. He says It will allow housing for people in mid-level law firms and higher levels of Amazon and other tech companies. It will goose the bottom line of developers.
A chart was released as part of the County Board April 28 presentation illustrating smaller lots of 5,000-8,000 square feet more likely to accommodate duplexes and triplexes, medium lots of 8,000-12,000 square feet more likely to accommodate 3-unit townhouses and 4-unit multiplexes and larger lots of 12,000-15,000 square feet more likely to accommodate 6- to 8-unit multiplexes. However, there are no prohibitions to keep a 8-unit multiplex being built on a smaller lot as long as it meets the height and setback requirements that would apply to a single family home on the lot. Many cite concerns that developers will take full advantage of this opportunity to build as large as possible to maximize the profits.
Julie Lee, President of the Glen Carlin Civic Association and a leader in the Civic Association effort says, “We were absolutely shocked at this proposal allowing rezoning of single family lots county-wide. Katie Cristol expressed to us in March 2020 that there would not be an across-the-board zoning. Other board members had said that, too. Cristol said very explicitly there wouldn’t be a process to eliminate single family zoning.” Lee says the Civic Associations were also told specifically to hold off on their comments until Phase II was announced “so we did. Imagine our surprise April 28.” Lee says she had been involved weekly with this issue for all these months and had no idea this was coming.
Katie Cristol, Chair of the Arlington County Board says there had been no earlier proposal that was changed on April 28. She says she thinks there has been a lot of misunderstanding about this as well as some deliberate misleading comments.
Many complain about the process. They have expressed concerns that the presentation does not indicate there will be further opportunities for community engagement before the July 12 drafting session where the board considers what kind of ordinances would be needed to put the proposed changes into place.
Cristol says there will be continued opportunities for community input. The first phase was talking to the community about needs and getting feedback from the community. She says bulletins and an informational toolkit provided facts and numbers about current housing in Arlington as background for community input.
After the online feedback form with specific questions was closed on May 27, the County posted an open-ended comment form, and the comments received through June 30 will be compiled for the July 12 meeting. They have also been receiving comments from community members, civic associations, and community groups via the website on the postcard sent to Arlington residents April 28. She adds that by law zoning changes require two hearings before the Planning Commission and two before the County Board where there will be unlimited two-minute comments.
Cristol says she has been on the road meeting with civic associations and has met with half a dozen in the last 2-3 weeks. “In addition I have a meeting on Saturday with a group of Latino leaders and just met with a group of faith leaders on climate issues. We’re trying to make sure we make ourselves available. “ She explained, “The staff said they wouldn’t be able to do staff presentations for all 50-60 civic associations and that got interpreted as no further input.”
Lee did say their group of Civic Associations have been meeting regularly with Board members and although they haven’t had their questions answered yet, “I am very pleased with the dialogue and that they have been willing to meet and speak with us.”
Lee says, “I want to make absolutely clear that we’re not saying we shouldn’t have more reasonably priced and affordable housing.” But she doesn’t like the way the process has unfolded. A decision this large should have thorough and thoughtful discussions. She complains It is announced with a 30-day comment period, and most of the Civic Associations don’t meet during the summer months. She feels there should be a more thorough and thoughtful discussion about housing alternatives with studies of the impact on tree canopy, parking, transportation.
Rousselet says his group was formed in the middle of 2019 with the arrival of Amazon and seeing the increased accelerated pace of density all over Arlington. He comments Arlington was going into turbo change with development and falling further and further behind. “We believe there should be cost-benefit projections of the impact of MM so we can weigh the alternatives before the zoning change, not the impact after it has happened. In addition, some of the current measurements such as storm water mitigation understate the cost. And finally the County should have a 10-year operating budget.
Cristol points out that the County does have an overall long-term plan which is systematically updated with new information. She says the storm water management plan made it into the proposed framework, and the forest and natural resources plan is about to come out. “We can’t update every time we add 150 people” but she explains the County is continually updating to reflect new information, changing circumstances and needs.
Others voice concern about the school enrollment figures which project 9-13 net new students the first year. “I don’t understand how you could only have 9 new students with the study’s projection of 20 new lots the first year with 94-108 units. How do we know they won’t build 100 new lots the next year? It just doesn’t make sense. How can we accommodate the potential explosion of students in the Arlington school system. There is no long term plan.”
APS says this estimate of 9-13 net new students is based on the study consultant’s estimated pace of housing growth and applying APS’s Fall 2021 Countywide student generation rates for different housing types. Because there are very few buildings with 3-8 housing units, the student rates for market rate garden apartments and garden condominiums were used for these housing types.
In addition APS points out, this is a net increase in student generation based on 18-22 students living in the estimated 94-108 missing middle housing units built per year offset by a decrease of 9 students estimated for the 19-21 single detached houses that are redeveloped. Frank Bellavia, Director of Communications for APS points out “our current 10-year projections don’t account for the proposal to expand housing types allowed in Arlington because the proposal is still under review and has not been adopted by the County Board. If new zoning rules are adopted, the County would account for any increase in housing development in the housing estimates they send to APS annually as part of the enrollment processes.
The next step is the July 12 County board working session. One Arlington resident points to the map which shows the majority of the the multiplexes would not be built along Columbia Pike close to transportation options but could be built off Military and Glebe right in her neighborhood. “All my family has worked at the polls.They have all said they will not be able to advocate for the current board members until this is resolved.”
Rousselet says only a tiny number of people in Arlington now know this proposal exists but as they are learning more and more, they are horrified at the gaps in logic. They can tell the Board what they think and if enough get energized they can rise up because when this is done we can’t undo it.