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Democratic County Board hopefuls say it is time to heal from Missing Middle divisions

County Board hopefuls at Arlington County Democratic Committee forum (via Arlington Democrats/YouTube)

The specter of Missing Middle haunts the slate of candidates for Arlington County Board.

Two months ago, the County Board allowed the by-right construction of 2-6 unit buildings on lots previously zoned for single-family homes.

Prior to voting for the changes, Board Chair Christian Dorsey and member Katie Cristol announced that they would not be seeking reelection. Those vying to replace them vary widely in their stances on Missing Middle, though a forum last week hosted by Arlington County Democratic Committee revealed areas of common ground.

Some Democrat hopefuls opined about how the process leading up to the zoning changes divided the community and revealed how renters are underrepresented in civic life. Mostly, the candidates suggested that they are focused on life after Missing Middle and supporting other policies to help people afford to live in Arlington.

“We don’t get a do-over. There is no do-over, there is only a do-next,” said policy analyst Maureen Coffey. “We need to learn from this process, what went wrong — never repeat that ever again — and move forward, bringing everyone to the table to talk about how this is going to play out and what we need to solve our housing and larger issues.”

All of the candidates agreed the county will need to analyze data before deciding on next steps.

“Monitoring closely is going to be really important — especially monitoring on elements of diversity and affordability,” said Susan Cunningham, who has run for County Board before as an independent and criticized the zoning changes.

Cunningham suggested modifying rules for accessory dwelling units and for lot coverage, which could curb the development of large homes oft-derided as “McMansions.”

“My biggest problem with Missing Middle was not just the process but the fact that we did not do a comprehensive look at housing,” Cunningham said. “Housing is complicated and housing this whole community in its diversity and amazingness is also complicated, and we oversimplified that in my opinion.”

To that end, another candidate opposed to the changes, real estate agent Natalie Roy, detailed her views on housing in a three-part plan. It includes implementing a proposal from the Arlington branch of the NAACP to prevent the displacement of low-income residents.

Roy said the county should provide a public dashboard showing where and what kind of permits are issued, as well as the selling price for completed units. Arlington County has already committed to publishing this data once it becomes available.

Missing Middle supporter Jonathan Dromgoole said he too is watching where the units are built. Next, he said, the county should focus on shoring up the dwindling supply of relatively inexpensive, market-rate units. This is something Arlington County is already looking at as these units are continuously lost to redevelopment and rehabilitation.

Former NAACP Arlington Branch president Julius “J.D.” Spain, Sr. said he is thinking farther outside the box.

“I want to have an extended conversation with the community about the pros and cons about community land trusts,” he said. “It will take time. Unfortunately the price of land in Arlington goes up and up every year and there’s really no way to block or stop it.”

Businessman Tony Weaver advocated for raises for county employees and expanded eligibility for housing grants.

“The first thing the county can do is give county employees a raise. I think we need to dramatically increase the amount we pay [teachers],” he said. “We have a commitment to help deal with the reality that we’ve had a tremendous loss of market-rate affordable units in 10-15 years.”

Coffey said Arlington needs to focus on renters, too.

“We need to stop just thinking about ownership,” she said. “We need renting to be stable for people, we need rental protections for people and we need to make sure quality affordable housing is safe and accessible for everyone.”

Others said the job of the County Board newcomers will be to heal fractures.

“It is unfortunate that we have divided our community on this single issue,” said Spain. “We need to unite this party —  this community — not divide it. That’s what this continued conversation on Missing Middle housing is doing, in my opinion.”

Coffey and Dromgoole said a key moving forward would be increasing the representation of renters in civic life.

“We need to find more ways to bring renters in and, honestly, need to stop discriminating against renters in conversations saying that, ‘Hey, why would I have a conversation with you? You’re just going to leave the county,'” Dromgoole said. “Renters are here to stay and we truly need better representation.”

Spain said he will “take a look at [county] commissions and make sure [renters are] represented.”

Ultimately, Weaver said, the best renter engagement is increasing voter turnout in renter-heavy neighborhoods.

“If we do that, we know that those folks will have a better voice in the decisions getting made,” he said.

While the bulk of the conversation was spent on housing policy, candidates did not say it was their No. 1 priority.

Dromgoole and Roy emphasized transparent policy-making and inclusive community engagement.

Weaver and Coffey stressed economics: Weaver pledged to tackle the 23% commercial vacancy rate and Coffey said she is focused on increased economic stability through improved transportation, greater childcare access and more workforce development, in addition to housing.

Cunningham, a mother of school-aged children, said she is focused on “helping our kids reconnect to our community.” Spain said he will focus on mental health access as a way to improve public safety and outcomes for Arlington Public Schools students.

“I want to build out our community-based programming, working with our schools, and make it a reality that anyone in Arlington has a place to go and won’t go broke doing so,” he said.

The June 20 primary will use ranked-choice voting to decide who will run as Democrats in November’s general election against non-Democrats who step forward. So far, this includes a frequent independent County Board candidate, Audrey Clement, who has vehemently opposed Missing Middle.

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