Arlington, VA

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On January 23, the Land Use subcommittee of the Virginia House of Delegates considered two bills from Delegate Ibraheem Samirah (D-Fairfax) to remove the restrictions of single-family zoning from Virginia neighborhoods.

HB 151 would have overridden local bans on accessory dwelling units and HB 152 would have forbade local authorities from banning duplexes on residential lots.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, these bills failed to launch out of their subcommittees. We need to build support now so they will have better luck next year.

The report on the hearing from WAMU called the proposal “ambitious,” but Delegate Samirah’s bills were very minimal interventions into local housing policy. They would simply allow two units on residential land currently limited to a single unit. This would have permitted smaller, lower-cost, and more land-efficient homes throughout the state, especially in more urban areas where housing costs are increasing rapidly.

But other regulations, such as setbacks and parking requirements that inhibit “missing middle” housing, would have remained.

These bills have something for both liberals and conservative. Democrats can take a stand for affordable housing and neighborhood diversity, as well as sound environmental policy. Republicans can claim a victory for individual property rights. It should be a win-win. My colleague at Greater Greater Washington, Alex Baca, spoke in favor of the bill, as did Emily Hamilton, representing the conservative Mercatus Center.

Yet, as we’ve seen many times, housing policy debates do not fall along party lines. Instead, incremental changes, which actually re-legalize housing types that were common in urban neighborhoods a century ago, are victims of suburban identity politics. It doesn’t help that the Land Use subcommittee has no voting members from Northern Virginia, where the housing shortage is most acute.

But despite the widespread yearning for a yard and your own four walls, I simply don’t understand why anyone would object to a duplex next door. Duplexes can look just like a single-family home. Instead of razing an older home to construct a 6,000 square foot McMansion, the same lot could have two 3,000 square foot homes.

In the urban environment, detached homes are the only hope for middle-income families to purchase a “starter home.” Many desirable neighborhoods, such as Del Ray, already have duplexes and small apartments interspersed with single-family homes. This form of density is necessary for creating walkable neighborhoods with retail, restaurants, and other amenities. An none of this prohibits single-family homes from being built.

I hope more delegates from Virginia’s dense cities and counties, especially delegates who represent Arlington, will help champion Delegate Samirah’s bills when they come to the legislature in 2021. Opening all residential land to duplexes, when the property owner desires, is a simple, modest, and easy step toward addressing the state’s housing shortage.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

I have lived in Arlington for almost 5 years and I’ve come to see the “Arlington Way” as both a blessing and a curse on the County.

For those not familiar, the Arlington Way as a tradition of citizen democracy, realized through an extensive culture and apparatus for public engagement around most County policies, as well as new commercial or residential developments. The goal is to give residents many opportunities to influence, or at least register their opinion, on a range of regulatory and administrative topics and projects that will have a broad impact.

However, the problem with this reliance on resident voices is the over-representation of the whiter, older, home-owning population. This does not reflect the Arlington’s diversity. County-wide, less than half of housing units are owner-occupied — 44.5%. These households are much more likely to be White than Black or Latino.

Because our tradition and apparatus for soliciting public input privileges homeowners and leaves out renters, many people have the opinion that renters are not invested in Arlington. We saw the manifestation of this attitude in the Sun-Gazette’s November 27 editorial, which argues that renters should not be mobilized to participate in local elections because they “have short-term interests in a community they do not plan to live in forever.” I’m heartened to see the results of ARLnow’s poll show a more inclusive attitude.

But the difficulties in engaging Arlington’s renter majority remain, and it should be the county’s New Year’s Resolution to bring more renters into the civic engagement process. I also encourage renters who are reading this to make a commitment to get more involved in their neighborhoods.

There are many civic organizations in Arlington that are conscientiously working to improve the representation of Arlingtonians in public discourse. My own civic association, Aurora Highlands, has a mix of single-family homes and multi-story apartment buildings. During my year on the executive board, I’ve been pleased by the effort to bring more renters into the conversations. The Arlington Civic Federation, a venerable institute for amplifying resident opinions, is also working to be more diverse as well.

But we can do more to bring renters and other underrepresented groups into to public discourse.

The County Board and its staff should use their influence with developers and property owners to ensure better communication about the Arlington Way with renters. Management companies need to help their residents be part of the community. This isn’t just the community within the building, but the broader neighborhood beyond their doors. Every apartment building, particularly those with professional management, should participate by distributing Civic Association newsletters, letting the Civic Association hold a meeting in their community space, and inviting County staff and board members to speak to residents. Some effort on the part of property managers can go a long way to show that renters want to have a voice in the County.

Happy New Year! Let’s resolve to make 2020 a great year for civic participation from all Arlingtonians.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her husband and son. By day, she is the Development Director for Greater Greater Washington and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Any time Arlington County gets access to land within our 26 square miles is a cause for celebration. It also requires a firm commitment to make the best possible use of this extremely limited and valuable resource.

On December 14, the County Board may vote to acquire the benefit of a new piece of property just blocks from the Crystal City Metro Station. We need to make sure this opportunity isn’t undone by the cry for parking.

South Arlington’s Crystal House apartment complex, comprised of two 1960s-era high-rise buildings, is slated for infill development. The site plan will be on the County Board’s December 14 agenda.

The staff recommendation contains what Planning Commissioners called a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for achieving the Crystal City Zoning Ordinance’s affordable housing obligation. Instead of providing 47 units of committed affordable housing within the complex, Roseland is offering to convey one portion of their property, currently a surface parking lot, to the County. The understanding is that the County could develop this property with at least 81 units of committed affordable housing.

The benefits of this proposal are enticing.

First, by owning the land and working with an Affordable Housing developer, the County Board could create units that would remain affordable to low-income residents for 60 years, unlike the typical 30-year term for on-site affordable units within market-rate developments. Second, the location of this parcel at 22nd and Eads would provide excellent transportation access for the building’s residents. Third, by owning and developing the property, the County could provide a much-needed community facility for the 22202 ZIP code, in addition to the committed affordable housing, such as we see at Arlington Mill.

But these positive benefits are future opportunities that will require a commitment to realize. The only thing Arlington would get in the short-term is a surface parking lot. And it is a particularly contested parking lot. Business owners from the adjacent “23rd Street Restaurant Row” see these 96 spaces as the key to their business.

Any effort to build on the parking lot will continue to face pushback from the merchants. Roseland is offering this parcel not only to achieve bonus density on their site, but also to get out of the parking fight. By accepting the land, Arlington County is stepping into a battle that could stymie any effort to achieve affordable housing.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

In one of its first concrete votes under the Housing Arlington umbrella, the County Board will consider a proposal on November 16 to revise its incentive zoning program that gives developers additional density in exchange for community amenities, particularly affordable housing or community facilities.

Within this admirable proposal to increase density, however, is a small but troubling indication that County staff may not trust the market to deliver housing for middle-income households.

Currently, developers can earn up to 25% additional density and up to 6 additional stories by including affordable housing or a community facility in their project. The County staff wants to remove the 25% cap on bonus density, but also eliminate the option to earn additional height.

This means that the County Board could approve buildings with higher density, if the height fits the zoning district or applicable adopted plan. The goal is to encourage more affordable housing and community facilities through site plan developments, while maintaining the height maximums that neighborhoods have come to expect.

The decision to lift the cap on bonus density is laudable, but removing the option for bonus height will not give our land use policies the flexibility to meet current market conditions. Much of Arlington’s land is governed by outdated zoning codes that don’t recognize or accommodate the current housing crisis. This change would perpetuate the “grand bargain” that allows height in narrow Metro corridors but restricts it even in other transit-heavy neighborhoods.

Planning staff want their planning process to take the lead, but this can mean years of work, managed through a community process that over-represents the most affluent, housing-secure residents.

However, more concerning is the less-discussed component of this proposal to modify the definition of “low- to moderate-income” used to determine whether affordable housing in a site plan is eligibility for bonus density. Currently, a project can receive bonus density for housing that is affordable to households making 60% Area Median Income (AMI), or $72,000 for a family of four, for rental units and 80% AMI ($97,000/year) for ownership. Given the emphasis on “missing middle housing,” staff wants to loosen these definitions and explore offering bonus density to projects that offer ownership units affordable to households making up to 120% AMI ($140,000/year).

Arlington County clearly lacks affordable ownership housing for middle-income households, especially those seeking family-sized units. However, the County Board should not use incentive zoning to create housing for families making $100,000 to $140,000 per year. We should allow missing-middle options by-right and let the market provide housing for these relatively affluent households. When we use incentive zoning to achieve housing for higher-income people, we limit the opportunity to produce housing stock that assists lower-income households who are not served by the market.

Expanding the upper income range for zoning incentives tells me that the County may be unwilling to push for market reforms that would make this housing a regular development. Housing for middle-income families is not a gift that developers give us. We should permit the density and housing forms throughout the county that will make this housing profitable to build without any special encouragement. If we can’t get housing for 120% AMI without using these tools, then our zoning is wrong.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her husband and son. By day, she is the Development Director for Greater Greater Washington and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Your neighborhood is only as diverse as its housing stock.

That is my housing mantra. It is adapted from a line in Henry Grabar’s reporting on the 2018 city council vote in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to end exclusionary zoning and allow up to three-unit buildings on every residential lot. Minneapolis’s bold decision, made in the name of racial equity and housing affordability, has echoed throughout the country and we have started to hear the reverberations here in Arlington.

If you believe that our County, and your neighborhood and your block, should welcome residents of different backgrounds, you should advocate for diverse housing options, too.

Exclusionary zoning is the term adopted by progressive housing advocates to recognize the way residential zoning that only allows single family detached houses creates a barrier to entry for a neighborhood. Zoning was originally developed in the early 1900s to keep industrial and commercial land uses away from residential areas (and even then, generally only worked to keep unwanted uses away from white residential neighborhoods).

Since the Supreme Court upheld a ban on apartment buildings in a residential Cleveland suburb in Euclid v. Ambler Realty (1926), zoning has also been used to keep specific types of residential housing forms away from affluent people and their homes. The majority ruling in that case referred to apartment buildings as “a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district.”

That language is not far off from what I’ve heard at from public comments during County Board meetings in 2019.

Multi-family buildings, because they have shared walls, less square footage, and lower upfront cost of ownership, are nearly always less expensive than a detached home. This makes them accessible to immigrants, lower-skilled workers, single parents, young couples, and basically anyone in Arlington making less the median household income of $114,000 per year.

You might think that apartments belong in other parts of the county, but not on your block of detached, million-dollar homes. But studies show that the best thing to break intergenerational poverty is to give poor people access to low-poverty neighborhoods.

You cannot ridicule or exclude a type of housing without ridiculing or excluding the type of people who live there. If you say you don’t want less expensive forms of housing in your neighborhood, you are in essence saying you don’t want lower-income people in your neighborhood. That is the heart of exclusionary zoning.

It is time for Arlington to recognize the discrimination inherent in our zoning code and start taking steps to make our neighborhoods match our values.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her husband and son. By day, she is the Development Director for Greater Greater Washington and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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