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Missing Middle debate continues amid dueling rallies at County Board meeting

(Updated at 3:50 p.m.) The Missing Middle housing debate fueled a tense confrontation and a spat over campaign financing during the Arlington County Board meeting Saturday.

Leading up to the meeting, proponents and opponents rallied outside of county government headquarters in Courthouse. Advocacy group leaders spoke to attendees and NBC 4 over the clang of construction on a new apartment building across the street.

The County Board is gearing up to consider whether to amend the zoning code to allow for buildings with two to eight units on lots that are currently zoned only for single-family detached homes. The Planning Commission and County Board could consider amendments to the proposal over the next few months.

Proponents say the move would give homebuyers more choices in more neighborhoods in a broader range of prices, and help undo the lasting impacts of historically racist zoning policies. Opponents counter these changes will actually displace lower-income residents, won’t decrease home prices, will reduce Arlington’s tree canopy and strain its infrastructure and schools.

In the County Board room this weekend, a resident interrupted the conclusion of an anti-Missing Middle speech to hand each County Board member a rolled-up, printed-out copy of a petition opposing the changes, which had more than 4,460 signatures as of publication.

“No, no — sir, sir, sir — excuse me, please, please, please don’t approach the Board,” said a distressed and frustrated sounding Board Chair Katie Cristol. “Please, can you please go to our Clerk? Sir? Thank you.”

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol directs a resident distributing petitions to the County Clerk (courtesy of David Cheek)

Missing Middle advocate Charles Day then took the podium to say that the status quo — redevelopment of starter homes into larger, multi-million-dollar homes — increases competition for existing market-rate affordable housing, like the garden apartment on Columbia Pike he and his wife live in, thus displacing lower-income families.

“It’s not lost on us that because of lack of starter homes, couples like us are taking up an apartment that a lower-income family might need,” he said. “Unfortunately, most young people don’t have a lot of options… There’s no silver bullet to solve the housing crisis overnight but rents continue to rise and the starter home is becoming a thing of the past.”

After him, independent County Board candidate Audrey Clement, speaking via Zoom, took a shot at the Sun Gazette’s endorsement of her opponent, incumbent Matt de Ferranti. She argued that de Ferranti supports Missing Middle because he’s taking money from construction workers.

“About $50,000 of de Ferranti’s large donor intake is from people and organizations outside the county, mostly outside the state, including $13,500 from construction trade unions destined to benefit from the Missing Middle building boom,” she said. “If the donations from those with no vested interest in the county were subtracted haul, his receipts would shrink to $19,000 and the election would be more competitive.”

According to Virginia Public Access Project, de Ferranti has received roughly $15,000 this year from unions representing construction workers, around the same amount as he received from a single, billionaire-funded education nonprofit.

De Ferranti said he refuses donation from developers and that donations from unions do not change his policy stances.

“I don’t take a dime from developers. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I learned that one donation that was submitted online had an association with a developer — and I returned it,” de Ferranti said in response. “I have no promises to any of the unions, I merely seek to fight for working people. Let’s have a debate on policy, let’s have a debate on equity, let’s do it civilly, please.”

The rally outside

Before the meeting, the two sides gathered in their camps, distinguished by their blue (pro-Missing Middle) and yellow (anti-Missing Middle) signs.

During an interview with a TV station, NAACP Arlington branch president Julius “JD” Spain said the county needs the barrier of single-family zoning removed “so we can have more diverse housing types within this community.”

“That’s the first step,” he said, per a recording independent County Board candidate Adam Theo posted on Twitter. “These conversations about the tree canopy, stormwater drainage, walkability, they’re all important as well. But we need to take that first step.”

“We constantly see the rising price of housing and know, if we wanted to live here, we could never do so on our salaries,” Bryan Coleman, another supporter of the plan, told NBC 4.

On the other side, retired realtor Diane Dunston, a leader of Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency, spoke against the plan.

Dunston said as of Saturday, there were 78 homes listed for sale under $1 million, including 39 single-family homes, 31 townhouses and eight condos. In all, 455 homes were for sale between $68,000 and $3.8 million, from studios to a 10-bedroom house, she said.

“The idea that we’re short of housing is felonious,” she said. “It’s true that home prices have increased. The county’s plan to do away with single-family housing won’t change that. Instead it’s going to make things worse.”

Then, former County Board member John Vihstadt took the podium, rallying the crowd.

“This Missing Middle scheme has been built on distractions, distortions and deceit,” Vihstadt said. He proceeded to read quotes he said came from County Board Chair Katie Cristol and Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey.

“Katie Cristol, two to three years ago, said: ‘I want to be clear: The study is not going to lead to an across-the-board rezoning of single family home areas. This will not eliminate single-family zoning. This will be an honest conversation.’ Is that right, folks?”

“No!” the crowd responded.

Vihstadt continued.

“Christian Dorsey said: ‘The Board’s direction has not included anything constituting a county-wide upzoning.’ Is that right?”

“No!” the crowd again answered.

He then endorsed Clement, the only candidate opposed to the initiative. Independent Adam Theo has said he wants the county to move faster on Missing Middle while de Ferranti has taken a more middle-of-the-road path, saying he supports more housing types but not the densest kinds, like six- and eight-plexes.

“If you want to send a message to the echo chamber and add diversity of thought and perspective to this County Board, pick your candidates wisely. If you’re the praying type, join me on election day in praying for ‘in-Clement’ weather,” Vihstadt said.

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