“Missing middle” is a commonly-used term that refers to the range of housing types that fit between single-family detached homes and mid-to-high-rise apartment buildings. The efforts to study missing middle housing options as a solution to Arlington’s housing shortage began in December 2019 with the county announcement of a three-phase study with public engagement to create recommendations for the County board to consider. The County staff report at that time indicated “neither an across-the-board zoning or elimination of single family zoning would be the right fit for Arlington.”
Then on April 28, 2022 Arlington County released its Missing Middle Housing Study Phase II that recommended the board approve a countywide change from single to multi-family zoning allowing a wider range of housing types (the missing middle) to be built on all residential areas that do not presently allow it. This would allow 20 duplexes, 4-plexes or 8-plexes to be built each year on single family lots. Currently 79 percent of Arlington ’s residential land is zoned for single detached housing.
So what happened? Opponents cite broken promises. Katie Cristol, current chair of the Arlington County Board, explains this isn’t really a rezoning which would be, for instance changing from residential to commercial. Critics complain it doesn’t matter what you call it; the result is the same.
At the public comment period before the Arlington County board meeting on Saturday, Oct. 15 Cristol said that 700 Arlingtonians had participated to date in small conversations with the board about the missing middle proposal. The board has extended their original schedule for voting on the missing middle proposal until early next year to allow for community input.
In one of these community conversations on Oct. 3 board member Takis Karantonis said, “We will move forward when we have heard as many voices as possible. There won’t be action this year. We won’t vote on something this doesn’t feel right.
At Saturday’s board meeting, Brian Casabianca, a Hispanic Arlington resident, appeared in opposition to the missing middle proposal. “It is unlikely it will create housing for low-income residents. We need facts.” He said he believes the proposal would replace the current options with high end housing. Casabianca presented a petition opposing the current proposal signed by 4,200 Arlington residents. “I urge you to drop the proposal and look for better solutions.”
Charles Day appeared on behalf of VOICE in favor of the missing middle proposal. “Couples like us are taking up apartments that low-income might need because we don’t have a missing middle housing option available.” He points out his wife is an Arlingtonian whose parents were able to move here into single family housing. Day cites a friend who lives in a studio apartment and would like to adopt a foster child but doesn't’ have the space or the option available to move to a larger apartment.
In the community conversation on Oct. 3 neighbors from around the county including Belle View Forest, Westover, Douglas Park, Bluemont and Rock Spring gathered for an online discussion. The question was raised about why there couldn’t be a vote by Arlington citizens on an issue this controversial.
The answer was that it reflects the type of government Arlington has based on state law. “The only referendum we vote on is bonds.” Karantonis said, “Zoning decisions can be very controversial. I don't think it is wise to have a referendum. Zoning decisions are why you elect the board countywide. We have very big ears.”
There are a number of complicated issues surrounding the middle middle proposal which could cause widespread change, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. There are a lot of questions still waiting to be answered.
Is there really a lack of middle housing available? Residents who have been searching for housing for a long time say “yes.”
On the other hand, Diane Duston, an Arlington resident since 1986 and a former realtor for 14 years says “no.” In an Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency press release on Sept. 12 she says,“In Arlington on Sept. 5 the Multiple Listing Service had 77 detached, semi-detached or town houses on the market with three or more bedrooms ranging in price from $554,000-$999,000.” She says that in any one day there are from 50 to more than 100 homes for sale in this price range. She explains that buyers always have demands that cannot be met. “Buyers who want to live in Arlington need to be realistic about what they can afford and choose a home that fits their pocketbook. It may not be as large or as new as they had hoped.”
What would be the impact of the 20 new housing units a year that would be allowed under the current missing middle proposal? For some at the Oct. 3 conversation this doesn’t go far enough to make a measurable impact in what they perceive as the current housing shortage.
For others the build up of 20 units a year is a gradual increase that gives time to see how the infrastructure absorbs it. For others 20 units is too many when it threatens to disrupt their neighborhood without sufficient evidence of the benefits or the potential impact.
The argument is often made that people who work here can’t afford to live here including our public servants such as police officers, fire personnel and teachers. But the question is raised about whether they would be able to afford these new units which are projected to start at $520,000-670,000 with a monthly mortgage of $2,700-3,300. The cost of units is projected to rise to $1.1 million for a duplex. One participant pointed out that public servants won’t be able to afford these new units but Federal employees will. Another one suggested the county should target the cost to 60 percent of the median income which is $146,000. “That is affordable. This will be less affordable.”
Would it increase diversity? The county presentation accompanying the announcement of the proposal indicates “new housing types would be attainable for households with income of $108,000-$200,000 a year. They estimate the missing middle could be attainable for 39 percent of Black or African American households and 39 percent of Hispanic or Asian households. A participant in the conversation pointed out zoning hadn’t been changed since the 1930s when single family housing was put in place as a way to reinforce segregation. “It’s time we made a change.”
How would the proposal impact the tree canopy, the schools, the parking along already overcrowded streets?
It also concerns citizens who complain the necessary studies on the impact of multi-unit options on the infrastructure haven’t been done. They explain that the missing middle concept is a current nationwide trend and that many other cities who have gone that direction have taken the time to produce extensive studies on the potential impact on their sewer and water systems, transportation and schools. “Arlington is rushing into it. Why not wait until we know the impact on our neighborhoods?”
There will always be questions. The issue is when there are enough good answers to move forward.
For more information or to sign up for a community conversation, visit the Arlington County Board Missing Middle website, https://www.arlingtonva.us/Government/Programs/Housing/Housing-Arlington/Tools/Missing-Middle