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Peter’s Take: Arlington’s ‘Missing Middle’ housing morass

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On Nov. 16, County planning staff briefed the County Board on Phase I of the Missing Middle Housing Study.

Prior to the pandemic, County planners asserted that up-zoning to enable new Missing Middle (“MM”) housing would be a major contributor to ease Arlington’s affordable housing crisis.

But by the time Phase I was launched, the County had been forced by cascades of data to abandon this false claim.

Misappropriating the language of civil rights advocates, County planners’ latest rationale is that up-zoning to enable MM housing is necessary to provide diversity of building types in certain neighborhoods, noting for example that each of two new $900,000 duplexes is more “affordable” than a $1.6M single-family house that might otherwise occupy the same lot.

As a leader of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF), I reject the notion that County planners’ preferences for more luxury buildings in certain neighborhoods deserves much weight compared to the preferences of the residents who live there now.

Prominent Arlington activist Suzanne Smith Sundburg points out that if more density were the key to affordable housing, more densely populated places like New York City would be more affordable than Arlington.

Arlington lacks adequate infrastructure and environmental plans for its current zoning

Arlington forecasts a total population of 301,200 in 2045 compared to 234,200 residents in 2021. These additional 67,000 residents are coming to Arlington under current zoning. Can Arlington’s infrastructure and environment sustain them?

For starters, where, exactly, are we going to put the new school facilities that will be required? In November 2019, the County Manager sent a letter to the acting APS superintendent offering County properties — including parks — to be turned into school properties. But those same parks are needed to support the park and recreational needs of these new residents. The Manager’s awkward overture reveals that the County has not planned adequately for either additional school capacity or additional parks.

Moreover, we regularly see water and sewage pipeline breaks in our old systems. Infrastructure problems are acute in many other areas, including flooding, power failures, building integrity, tree maintenance and protection, bridges and competition for parking spaces as population increases.

The County and APS have failed to adopt an internally consistent plan for all major public facilities, i.e., a Public Facilities Master Plan, despite the fact that six years have passed since the 2015 recommendation of the Community Facilities Study Group that such a Master Plan was critical to Arlington’s future. Many potential sites for important public facilities have been lost permanently to private development during those six years of dithering.

Generational transformation

Arlington County has not quantified the full costs of critical capital expenses that will have to be incurred as our population increases. In fact, the Manager told the County Board in his message of Nov. 12, 2020: “[G]iven that we are undergoing a generational transformation in how we provide services and use facilities, this is the wrong time” to support a proposal from the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission for long-range planning.

How then can this be the right time for an action like major MM up-zoning that could have a huge, irreversible, net-negative impact on Arlington’s future?

Conclusion

County planners now admit that Manhattanization of Arlington will not solve Arlington’s affordable housing crisis. Arlington’s accelerating density will just lead to displacement and gentrification. While these planners continue to shift rationales for major MM up-zoning, a large pot of gold for developers at the end of this rainbow remains a constant. Developers will take the money and run regardless of the MM rationale du jour.

Arlington County must demonstrate that our environment and our budget can meet the needs of the 67,000 new residents who are coming here under current zoning, let alone the thousands of additional residents — over and above those 67,000 — who will move here if major MM up-zoning is approved.

As ASF recommends, the County should:

  • Perform site-specific fiscal impact analyses for new, multi-unit residential projects,
  • Release all existing long-term operating budget forecasts, and
  • Prepare three county forecasts comparing current zoning with proposed MM up-zoning:
    • Long-term operating budget,
    • Long-term environmental impact,
    • Long-term household income by quintiles showing projected disparities among different household groups compared to the national average.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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