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County Board member talks ‘missing middle’ housing on WAMU

Takis Karantonis (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

County Board member Takis Karantonis says if the county has the “political will,” a sufficient amount of affordable and “missing middle” housing can get built.

Karantonis appeared on Friday’s “Politics Hour with Kojo Nnamdi” on public radio station WAMU. In addition to housing, the discussion touched on a new redistricting lawsuit, the Washington Commanders’ increasingly unlikely move to Virginia, and the bear that was roaming Arlington last week.

The trio spent a majority of time talking about the newest draft proposal of the county’s Missing Middle Housing Study, which calls for amending the zoning ordinance to allow housing types that are denser (like duplexes, townhomes, etc.) but not larger than single family homes. The proposal was released last month and has, since, picked up several notable endorsements.

After what promises to be a contentious community engagement process, the County Board is expected to vote on whether to amend the zoning ordinance this fall.

On the radio program, Karantonis described his and the Board’s efforts “to lift barriers” that might better allow young families, middle class households, and seniors to afford buying a home in Arlington County. As the study proposes, that could mean building duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and other smaller-scale multi-family dwellings on lots that were previously zoned for only a single family house.

“More than 70 percent of Arlington are single households [or] detached family homes. And it’s absolutely not available [for more households],” he said. “It’s outlawed to be able to have more households in these buildings.”

While Karantonis continued to tout the potential plan, both Nnamdi and frequent program guest Tom Sherwood pushed back a bit.

Sherwood, a long-time local reporter and political analyst, noted that, since such a large portion of Arlington’s residential property is made up of single family homes, this plan may not have as broad support as the County Board may hope.

Additionally Sherwood played the role of devil’s advocate by asking if “economic forces” are so strong that no matter what local government enacts in terms of housing policies, it won’t be enough.

“That’s either a very pessimistic or very cynical take. I think that governance matters and we can deliver a lot,” Karantonis said in response. “It’s a very difficult thing but we can do it. The question is whether we have the political will and whether we have the anchorage in our community to honor these priorities.”

Nnamdi asked for the Board member’s thoughts on the criticism that this change in zoning won’t lead to more broadly affordable housing, as “missing middle” housing is likely to be priced significantly higher than levels typically seen for subsidized affordable housing in the county. Karantonis responded that dealing with the zoning ordinance question doesn’t mean the Board’s work is done on this matter.

“Once we find a way that is tailored to Arlington and works for the housing environment, I can imagine that there will be a very long to-do list that would be looking at housing affordability in these districts, as well,” he said.

There was only time for two callers during Karantonis’ portion of the program. One asked if he knew of any other local organizations that have endorsed the plan so far, beyond the Sierra Club and the NAACP. He responded that he expected more to weigh in soon.

The other caller was from the group Arlingtonians For Our Sustainable Future — which has been vocal in its opposition to the missing middle proposal — asking about equity and area median income thresholds. The caller’s question was why the county was lifting barriers for “pretty well-off households” as opposed to those who live further below the area median income.

Karantonis answered there are “other instruments of affordable housing policy in our toolbox” that could help with this challenge and that, theoretically, providing moderately more housing density in Arlington will lead to more housing stock overall that could be available for those who live below the level needed to buy a new single-family home.

Beyond missing middle housing, the three also talked about Karantonis being able speak to eight languages, Raytheon moving its headquarters to Arlington, Karantonis’ beliefs on gun control, and the black bear spotted in Arlington last week.

Karantonis had some advice for residents if they see a bear.

“Stay far from it and call the police [and] animal control,” he said.

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