If the last year has taught us anything, it is that half measure never provide real solutions to our most pressing problems.
In the realm of housing, our leaders should be taking bold action to address affordability and ensure a sustainable future. This means being courageous in championing an end to exclusionary zoning and embracing policies that will allow multifamily housing throughout the County.
Housing affordability and the terrible legacy of exclusionary zoning are making national headlines. In recent weeks, this has been spurred by a proposal within President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to “eliminate state and local exclusionary zoning laws.” National opinion writers have clarified that restrictive zoning policies are antithetical to both progressive values of inclusivity and conservative values of the free market.
As the national conversation moves toward acceptance of inclusive and open zoning, advocates at the local and state level have succeeded in pushing elected officials to act. Communities across the country are making news by taking bold steps to add housing, in the name of racial justice, as well as economic necessity.
The City Council of Berkeley, California, voted to eliminate single-family zoning, a century after it was the first city to establish the practice. This is a symbolic but significant step, recognizing the racist legacy of exclusionary zoning. Other cities in California have made similar moves, including Sacramento and San Jose. This follows Minneapolis’s transformative zoning change in 2018, and statewide zoning liberalization in Oregon in 2019.
Why isn’t Arlington making news on this front?
We were the beneficiaries of the biggest economic development decision of the past decade when National Landing was selected as the location for Amazon’s second headquarters. This decision made news across the country. The anticipated, and ongoing, challenges to housing affordability, displacement, and tenant advocacy also made news.
But Arlington County is not making news with its policy response. Instead, we are taking miniscule steps, deferring to entrenched interests at every point. Everything is undertaken from the perspective of an incumbent landowner who demands a low-density, car-centered neighborhood blocks away from corridors rich with opportunity.
Arlingtonians pushing for affordable and attainable housing, as well as safe streets and reduced car traffic, face a gauntlet of public meetings. It takes hours of our lives to get a half mile of protected bike lane or an extra unit of housing on a single-family lot.
The Vernon Street Duplex is a proposal for a two-unit dwelling on a corner lot along Washington Blvd. Because of zoning rules, the builder must go through the same site plan review process that the County has for large-scale apartment or office buildings. “Missing middle” housing will never be attainable for middle-income families if it is forced to incur onerous planning processes.
While County staff released a set of bold research papers that clarify the extent of the problem and the historical grounding, the next phase will identify which types of multi-family homes might be palatable, and then decide which places are acceptable for these new building types. After two years of work, we might get to add duplexes along a few arterial roads because the process is defined not by what needs to be done, but by what will cause the least offense to small group of vocal defenders of Arlington’s suburban past.
Another component is the Multifamily Reinvestment Study, which is focused on preserving the dwindling supply of market-rate affordable apartments, which are isolated in a small band of allowable zoning, sprinkled along Arlington’s main corridors. The goal is to identify “GLUP and zoning tools” that could “provide a streamlined development review process and offer more density than currently possible in order to maintain some affordability.” But these changes will have a limited impact as long as we allow apartments on only 27% of Arlington’s land.
Over the past year, I have been increasingly frustrated with the Arlington Way. It serves as a roadblock to any progress to address our climate crisis or our housing shortage. It requires an exhausting amount of effort from advocates and residents, especially ones who are the least stable in their housing in Arlington. It is time to think bigger, and start making news.
Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch, and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.