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Making Room: Arlington’s Neighborhoods Should Match Our Values

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Your neighborhood is only as diverse as its housing stock.

That is my housing mantra. It is adapted from a line in Henry Grabar’s reporting on the 2018 city council vote in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to end exclusionary zoning and allow up to three-unit buildings on every residential lot. Minneapolis’s bold decision, made in the name of racial equity and housing affordability, has echoed throughout the country and we have started to hear the reverberations here in Arlington.

If you believe that our County, and your neighborhood and your block, should welcome residents of different backgrounds, you should advocate for diverse housing options, too.

Exclusionary zoning is the term adopted by progressive housing advocates to recognize the way residential zoning that only allows single family detached houses creates a barrier to entry for a neighborhood. Zoning was originally developed in the early 1900s to keep industrial and commercial land uses away from residential areas (and even then, generally only worked to keep unwanted uses away from white residential neighborhoods).

Since the Supreme Court upheld a ban on apartment buildings in a residential Cleveland suburb in Euclid v. Ambler Realty (1926), zoning has also been used to keep specific types of residential housing forms away from affluent people and their homes. The majority ruling in that case referred to apartment buildings as “a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district.”

That language is not far off from what I’ve heard at from public comments during County Board meetings in 2019.

Multi-family buildings, because they have shared walls, less square footage, and lower upfront cost of ownership, are nearly always less expensive than a detached home. This makes them accessible to immigrants, lower-skilled workers, single parents, young couples, and basically anyone in Arlington making less the median household income of $114,000 per year.

You might think that apartments belong in other parts of the county, but not on your block of detached, million-dollar homes. But studies show that the best thing to break intergenerational poverty is to give poor people access to low-poverty neighborhoods.

You cannot ridicule or exclude a type of housing without ridiculing or excluding the type of people who live there. If you say you don’t want less expensive forms of housing in your neighborhood, you are in essence saying you don’t want lower-income people in your neighborhood. That is the heart of exclusionary zoning.

It is time for Arlington to recognize the discrimination inherent in our zoning code and start taking steps to make our neighborhoods match our values.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her husband and son. By day, she is the Development Director for Greater Greater Washington and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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