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Morning Poll: ‘Missing Middle’ maximum?

Slide from Missing Middle Housing Study draft framework (via Arlington County)

Earlier this month, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the Arlington County Board, supporting the county’s Missing Middle Housing Study.

The letter says that the proposed framework of legalizing small-scale multifamily housing in neighborhoods currently only zoned for single-family homes would be a positive step in creating new housing that’s more affordable than what would otherwise be built on single-family-only lots.

But, the Chamber suggests, the proposal might not go far enough.

The Arlington Chamber of Commerce strongly supports the goals of the County’s Missing Middle Housing Study. Allowing for more density and a greater diversity of housing types in Arlington’s single-family neighborhoods is an important step forward. It is critical to making Arlington a place where people of all backgrounds can live, and where workers can find homes near their jobs. With the overwhelming majority of Arlington’s land area taken up by single- family detached zoning, there must be opportunities to open up these neighborhoods to new housing forms if Arlington is to ever make real progress on this issue.

We are pleased to see that the proposal allows these new housing types to be built by-right. This is essential to making them viable for builders. Given the nature of the rezoning process, it is unlikely that many builders would go through the trouble of rezoning when they can build more expensive homes by-right without the hassle and expense. However, we are disappointed by the projections of how many units this change will bring forward. The consultant’s study projects the redevelopment of 20 lots per year, divided into approximately 100 units. While that would represent a step forward, it barely scratches the surface of the problem of housing affordability in Arlington.

Further, we are concerned that the study may be overestimating the viability of some of these units. By requiring the structures to fit into the same footprint required for single-family detached homes, builders’ options for new housing types can be very limited. By requiring building heights to be no higher than 35 feet, stacked townhomes are effectively blocked, despite being there being a proven market for them in neighboring jurisdictions at reasonable price points. By requiring lot coverage standards to be the same as those required for single-family detached homes, sufficient on-site parking may be very difficult to install for larger projects.

The letter predicts that most of what will be built, should the zoning change be made, will be townhouses, duplexes, and triplexes. The proposal calls for allowing up to 8-unit homes, but only on sufficiently large lots and no larger in terms of building size than what is currently allowed for single-family zones.

In order to realize the goal of making housing more attainable, more flexibility should be granted. That would mean increasing building heights by just five to ten feet to allow stacked townhomes to be considered as an option. That might also mean allowing increases in lot coverage to allow for parking that meets the demand of prospective residents further away from transit. Existing zoning rules allow 56% lot coverage for duplexes, townhomes, and multifamily housing, which, if applied here, would enable a more diverse type of units to be constructed on larger lots than we would likely see at single-family detached standards.

While allowing for the construction of more duplexes and three-unit townhomes is a positive, and much needed change, the price points for these units could still be over $1 million. This is especially true in many areas where the County would allow more units per lot under the proposed changes, but which might not come into fruition without more flexibility. Duplexes and triplexes are great, but will accomplish less than other types in improving Arlington’s affordability. We are worried that given the proposed height and lot coverage rules, they may end up being a significantly larger portion of the missing middle units that get built than currently projected.

The Chamber strongly support the goals of this study, and we urge the County not to give in to the demands of opponents who want to shut this down prematurely. However, we think it is important that the County get this right, and would go further to bring real options to residents who would otherwise be unable to find them in these neighborhoods. As you move through the process, please consider what it would take to build units, that the County wants to allow with these changes, at a lower cost based on market conditions, and ensure that the development standards are imposed allow for that. Thank you for your consideration.

The Chamber joins the Arlington chapters of the NAACP and the Sierra Club in endorsing the “Missing Middle” plan. But there has also been plenty of pushback, with many residents expressing concern about increased traffic, overcrowded schools, loss of tree canopy, noise and a loss of neighborhood “character.”

The concern for the latter was expressed last night in one of numerous emails to the County Board, opposing zoning changes, that ARLnow has been CCed on recently.

As a 10 year resident of Lyon Village, I have appreciated the quiet tree-lined streets which our neighborhood offers as well as the convenience to the high density and vibrancy of Clarendon. Unlike many in our neighborhood, I have personal experience with the effects of higher density living as our backyard abuts a multi-family dwelling at 1325 N. Hudson. Over the past decade, we have been witness to hearing drunken altercations in the parking lot, as well as the late arrival and early departure of vehicles with loud mufflers or loud stereos, and even salacious activity in the open between residents who deemed it appropriate behavior to do so in the apartment buildings parking area.

While all of these events are possible in any urban/suburban neighborhood, the likelihood of any occurring increases with greater population density.

I urge you to consider alternative means to provide housing opportunities in Arlington that do not include changing the character of single-family home neighborhoods which many of us cherish.

The County Board is set to wade into the debate in July when it votes on whether to advance the Missing Middle study to a third phase. The push and pull of advocates and opponents pushing for more or less density raises a question: is there a middle ground?

This morning’s poll question asks whether there’s an upper bound on the number of units per multifamily building that would be acceptable to readers.

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