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Susan English speaks in favor of Missing Middle housing during the September County Board meeting (via Arlington County)

In a crowded Bozman Government Center on Saturday morning, one person urged the Arlington County Board to move forward with Missing Middle housing while another critiqued the push for county-wide zoning changes.

But Board members had only to read the room — and the signs people brought — to see a sea of residents who were as divided into pro- and anti-Missing Middle camps that day as they were during a raucous meeting this June.

“We owe it to our larger community to let more people live here through smaller multiplexes, yes, but especially through denser affordable apartment housing. Doing otherwise is environmentally unsustainable — and it’s exclusionary,” said Susan English. “I’ve lived in a pleasant tear-down in a nice neighborhood for 40 years, but I hope when I leave my house will be replaced with at least a duplex.”

Independent County Board candidate Audrey Clement, the only candidate opposed to the Missing Middle upzoning proposal, told those attending and watching the meeting that she would “debunk some myths about it.”

Reciting excerpts of a speech she has presented during the Arlington County Civic Federation and Chamber of Commerce candidate fora, Clement argued that Missing Middle will not add to the county’s stock of 3-bedroom, and will reduce Arlington’s tree canopy, and will not increase home-buying opportunities for people of color — though the latter is an assertion with which the local NAACP disagrees.

Clement suggested alternatives such as office-to-residential conversions.

Board Chair Katie Cristol broke through the whooping and hollering that followed Clement’s comments, saying, “Alright, thank you ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to continue hearing from neighbors.”

But she later thanked attendees for respecting the rules for addressing the Board, which include restrictions on how many people can speak on a given matter not otherwise on the Board’s agenda.

“I also just want to give a sincere thanks to all who’ve come who respected our one-speaker-per-topic rule, helping us hear from more neighbors,” she said.

During the June meeting, some attendees shouted at Cristol when she cut off another speaker for violating the rule. The Board allows one speaker per topic, with opposing views on the same topic considered two separate topics.

Booing, which followed a speech this summer by a member of pro-density group YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, was also absent this time around. But there was plenty of applause — for every speaker, despite the range of topics, from the taxes nonprofits pay to climate change.

Resident Dima Hakura, who has spoken at length in meetings and with the Board about the Courthouse West General Land Use Plan, took the podium to urge the County Board to listen to its constituents, not “patronize us.” The room erupted in cheers after she finished her speech.

We need a leadership that builds consensus among us and unites us. A leadership that not only respects our opinions and values them, but also taps into them. One that considers our thoughts and makes constructive use of them to evolve the solutions possible… Interestingly, Arlington was always known for that, but somehow, somewhere we lost our way and we need to find it again.

… When I told people I was coming to speak before you today, the reaction was: “Why bother?” or, “It’s not going to make an iota of difference,” or, “Their mind is already made up. They have an agenda they want to push.” Regardless, I am hoping differently.

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Townhomes in the Green Valley neighborhood (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at noon) A new report supports Arlington County’s consideration of residential zoning changes as a way to counteract past discriminatory practices. But critics of the changes could harm, not help, the local Black community.

The NAACP Arlington Branch hosted an online discussion last Wednesday (July 20) about the McGuireWoods report in light of local debate around the Missing Middle Housing Study proposal, which would allow small-scale multifamily housing in areas currently zoned only for single-family homes.

The County Board expects to vote on the zoning changes in December.

The report, which looked at local and state policy changes to address housing segregation in Virginia, pointed out that although Arlington did not adopt an explicit racial zoning ordinance, redlining and restrictive covenants resulted in most of the majority white areas permitting single-family detached housing only, thus raising the relative cost of homes in those areas.

The report recommended adding missing middle housing types to zones that currently only allow single family housing, as the study recommends. Since Arlington is considering allowing housing with up to eight units in those areas — depending on lot size — the report considered the county “well ahead of the curve compared to most places in the state,” Matthew Weinstein, an attorney with the legal and public affair firm, said during the presentation.

Organizations opposing missing middle housing content, however, that “missing middle” would not be affordable to lower-income groups. Officials expect households with an income between $108,000 and over $200,000 to be able to afford the new proposed housing types, according to a county report in April.

The median household income of Black Arlington residents is around $67,000, according to a county website.

“So we’re off target for African Americans currently living in Arlington,” said Anne Bodine, of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, an advocacy group against increased housing density.

“Homeownership per se, for [the] current African American population in Arlington, we don’t see that this is an option for the majority of that population,” she said.

Although Weinstein did not believe missing middle housing could solve all issues, it was important to “increase housing availability and housing stocks so more people could live here affordably,” he said.

During the NAACP presentation, Weinstein also said that discriminatory housing policies in the past made it harder for Black residents to own homes, preventing many from accumulating wealth through generations.

However, since the County Board is not expected to restrict new missing middle housing to for-sale housing only, it would be more likely for those newly-created units to become rentals, Bodine said.

“Just the way [a] condo has to be set up in Virginia, it’s much more complicated legally and much more expensive,” Bodine said. “Those costs make it more likely that the units will end up becoming rentals.”

Other policies the report recommended include providing financial support to formerly redlined neighborhoods as part of Arlington’s comprehensive plan, a guide the county uses to set priorities. The report also suggested updating zoning ordinances to encourage mixed-use buildings with higher density in commercial areas, using density bonuses and other affordable housing incentives, and focusing on home ownership like community land trusts.

Bodine believed there are other ways to achieve more diverse and equitable housing, such as cash rental vouchers for people earning lower incomes, scholarships for children coming from low-income families, and keeping current income thresholds to qualify for affordable housing on Columbia Pike, among other things.

The local NAACP has endorsed the missing middle plan, but previously said that more action would be necessary to better integrate Arlington neighborhoods.

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(Updated at 4:35 p.m.) The Arlington County Board is eyeing December for a vote on residential zoning changes suggested by the county’s Missing Middle Housing Study.

But changes to the study’s draft framework — for allowing multi-family homes with up to 8 units on properties currently zoned only for single family homes — seem likely.

The Board discussed the often-contentious community feedback to the proposal and possible modifications at a work session Tuesday afternoon. As they talked with county staff and amongst themselves, residents — many with signs supporting or opposing the proposal — packed the Board room and watched with interest.

Slide from staff presentation at Missing Middle Housing Study work session

The feedback, county staff said in a presentation, has been mixed but more negative than positive. Of note is the split between feedback from residents of single-family detached homes and those who live in apartments, condos and townhouses.

Asked whether any housing types, from townhouses to 8-plexes, should be removed from the proposal, 78% of single-family detached home residents who provided feedback said yes, indicating opposition to the current proposal, while 70% of those who live in other housing types said no, indicating support.

Slide from staff presentation at Missing Middle Housing Study work session

Arlington has about 29,000 single-family detached homes and 79,000 townhouses, apartments, condos and other housing types, the staff presentation said.

Though critics of the missing middle proposal have been calling for more public outreach and feedback, county staff argued that they conducted extensive outreach, including 150,000 postcards, nine pop-up events, six walking tours and an online feedback form.

Slide from staff presentation at Missing Middle Housing Study work session

The online feedback form received 2.5 times as many negative comments as positive comments, the staff presentation said, though feedback at the pop-up events and through emails and letters was more positive, with roughly 2.5 times more positive comments as negative via email.

County staff noted that the vast majority of those responding to the feedback form said they own a single-family detached home and reported “white” or “prefer not to respond” under “race and ethnicity.”

Slide from staff presentation at Missing Middle Housing Study work session

Given the overrepresentation of white homeowners in providing online feedback, staff said they used the county’s “equity lens” and decided to hold pop-up events in areas with renters and minority residents, so as to gather more feedback from those groups.

All told, staff told the Board that it has received “strong” interest and extensive input from the community about the proposal.

“The feedback was fast and furious and ongoing,” said Dept. of Community Planning, Housing and Development Communications Manager Erika Moore.

Slide from staff presentation at Missing Middle Housing Study work session

Following the staff presentation, the Board discussed aspects of the proposal and posed questions to staff.

Board members Libby Garvey and Matt de Ferranti — who is up for reelection in November — both expressed concern about putting eight housing units in the footprint of a single-family home in an otherwise single-family home neighborhood.

“The eight units makes me kind of uncomfortable,” Garvey said

“I share the concern with the 8-units for this specific reason, I think it will result in more small half bedroom units,” de Ferranti agreed, joining other Board members in expressing support for “missing middle” homes with more bedrooms, which could house a family.

There was also discussion of whether missing middle zoning should be limited to transit corridors, which received pushback from some members.

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Take a drive through Fairlington and you will see sprawling acres of modest Colonial Revival-style condominiums with manicured lawns.

Once, they were garden apartments and townhouses, built between 1942 and 1944 to house the masses of defense workers who flocked to Arlington during World War II.

The complex is one marquee example of Arlington’s World War II-era garden apartments. Other examples include Arlington’s first complex, Colonial Village, and its second, Buckingham Village.

While denser than exclusively single-family-zoned neighborhoods, they are roomier, greener and lower to the ground than mid- to high-rise developments along Arlington’s Metro corridors. That is, they fit the definition of “Missing Middle” housing stock that Arlington County is looking to increase.

Today, Arlington is once again facing a housing crunch, one that is expected to tighten as Amazon hires more workers and companies spring up in its orbit. Garden apartments were once a solution to Arlington’s housing problems 80 years ago. But as Arlington County considers a plan for allowing “Missing Middle” housing in all residential area of the county, the “Missing Middle” of 80 years ago — these low-rise, gentle density developments — are worth a look.

Arlington’s housing history

Garden apartments first came online in the 1920s and were billed as a more spacious and light-filled alternative to denser, taller tenement housing, says George Mason University Mercatus Center fellow Emily Hamilton, who studies housing and development.

“Their setting, in park-like areas, was also shaped by the ‘garden city‘ movement, which started in the UK and was influential in the U.S. and based on the belief that urban housing should be surrounded by greenery, even in the city,” Hamilton said said. (Reston is nearby example of a planned “garden city.”)

But that trend didn’t pick up in Arlington until 1935, when 245 Colonial Revival-style buildings were built on 55 acres and named Colonial Village, writes Gail Baker, a former member of the Arlington County Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board. Construction began on Arlington’s second complex, the 100-acre Buckingham Village, in 1937, and was completed in the 1950s.

Hamilton says demand shifted toward single-family homes in the mid-century, as living standards and federal financing made buying a house more feasible.

As a result, garden apartments became a “starter option” for families, according to historian Charlie Clark.

“A lot of Arlingtonians who are middle-aged homeowners got their start in the garden apartments in the 40s and 50s,” he said. “Then, they ambitiously rose the economic scale, and wanted a single-family home with a yard, and ended up in other neighborhoods.”

By the 1970s, as the regional population grew and Metro was built these garden apartments faced development pressure. Colonial Village was broken up: some units were conserved, others were converted in condos, and still others were razed and turned into office buildings.

The county preserved Buckingham through an affordable housing deal and the units at Fairlington Villages were converted into condominiums and sold. One selling point was that their Colonial Revival façades were maintained, Baker writes.

Fifty years later, garden apartments are some of the last affordable dwellings to rent in the county in part because the buildings are dated, Hamilton says. And development pressure is mounting, as these buildings are reaching the end of their useful lives.

“It’s interesting,” Clark said. “They were probably considered middle-class when they were built, but they probably have declined a little bit in terms of economics.”

A collection of them near Rosslyn, on N. Ode Street, will be redeveloped as a high-rise affordable housing complex. Meanwhile, the owners of a similar complex along Columbia Pike will be redeveloping its property with townhouses.

Arlington County pre-empted speculative redevelopment of a third garden apartment complex, the Barcroft Apartments, by brokering a deal with Amazon and developer Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners, which agreed to preserve 1,334 units on the site as committed affordable units for 99 years.

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

A few weeks is not enough time for Arlington residents to provide informed commentary on a major local issue, according to the Arlington County Civic Federation.

The group is calling for the county to extend the public comment window for the Missing Middle Housing Study’s draft framework until Sept. 30, from the current deadline of Friday, May 27.

The framework calls for properties only zoned for single-family homes to also allow small-scale multifamily housing — from townhomes to 8-plexes, depending on lot size — provided the building is no larger than zoning currently allows for single-family homes.

That could allow more housing types and price points in Arlington, which will otherwise continue to see small homes torn down in favor of large single-family homes, the framework suggests. The study only expects a modest amount of new “missing middle” housing through the change — about 20 properties per year.

The Civic Federation, however, says that this is a major change no matter how many new duplexes, triplexes, etc. are expected to be built in what are now exclusively single-family home neighborhoods.

The federation passed the following resolution on Tuesday by a vote of 90% to 10%.

WHEREAS Arlington County has an established General Land Use Plan (GLUP) that allows for existing single-family residences and high-density, mixed-use development along the high-density, mixed-use corridors;

WHEREAS Arlington County’s Planning web page states, “Planning decisions are informed by extensive research, professional expertise and community input” and “relies on extensive community input. Individual residents can have a say on the decisions that affect their neighborhoods and the County as a whole”;

WHEREAS on April 28, Arlington County released its proposed Phase 2 Missing Middle Housing Framework document, which is the guiding framework that will facilitate the upzoning of these residential zoning districts — R-5, R-6, R-8, R-10, and R-20 — thus authorizing greater housing density in what are currently referred to as “single-family” neighborhoods countywide;

WHEREAS the impact of the Missing Middle Housing framework and its subsequent upzoning will impact not only housing density but also parking, public school enrollment, stormwater management and tree canopy preservation in residential neighborhoods countywide;

WHEREAS the deadline for public comment and feedback for the Missing Middle Housing framework is May 27, 2022, four (4) weeks from the framework’s release to the public;

WHEREAS this is a complex initiative, civic associations and other county organizations will require additional time to notify their own members, study the likely consequences of the upzoning, and develop a membership response in order to provide meaningful feedback to the county; and

WHEREAS four (4) civic associations — Arlington Forest, Boulevard Manor, Bluemont, and Glencarlyn, which represent more than 4,000 households in central Arlington — have already shared their concerns about the inadequacy of the four-week public feedback period for the proposed Phase 2 Missing Middle Housing Framework document;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the Arlington County Civic Federation (ACCF) asks the Arlington County Board to immediately request that the County Manager extend the public review period for the Missing Middle Phase 2 concept plan to September 30, 2022 — to make it possible for civic associations and other community organizations to have sufficient time to assist in disseminating Missing Middle Housing Framework materials to their own members, to meet with and pose questions to staff, to analyze and understand the potential impacts on their neighborhoods, and to provide meaningful feedback before the framework is finalized.

The four civic associations referenced in the resolution noted in an April 25 letter to county officials that “our community associations, like so many others, are inactive during June, July and August,” thus making it difficult to study the issue and engage residents before September.

On the other hand, Arlington has something of a reputation for dragging out its public input and analysis processes, leading 55% of respondents to a 2018 ARLnow poll to say that “elected officials should make quicker decisions based on a streamlined community input process.”

Do you agree with the Civic Federation that residents should be given a few more months to provide their feedback on the draft plan, prior to it being compiled and analyzed by county officials ahead of potential zoning ordinance amendments?

Or should the county just get on with it?

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An aerial view of Bellevue Forest and a deed from a property in the neighborhood dated 1938 (image via Arlington Historical Society)

A sociology professor at Marymount University and a former housing lawyer are poring over century-old property records to locate Arlington’s segregated neighborhoods.

It’s a time-consuming process, but the goal is to map Arlington’s “history of exclusion,” says professor Janine DeWitt.

“Our research is to take a look very closely at a granular level — lot by lot, parcel by parcel — and map the racially restrictive covenants that were in Arlington,” she said during a discussion hosted by the Arlington Historical Society last week. “We want to know the Arlington we’re in right now and how much of that was exclusionary.”

And DeWitt says she and her research partner, Kristin Neun, will not stop “until we find every last one of them and not before.”

This research effort is taking shape while the county grapples with its history of racist zoning policies through the Missing Middle Housing Study. Housing advocates who welcome the study, however, say it’s not enough to integrate neighborhoods that are still restricted as a result of the 20th-century practices DeWitt and Neun are researching.

Until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made racially restrictive covenants illegal and unenforceable, these clauses excluded potential buyers based on their race, ethnicity or religion. Such deeds governed Arlington’s housing market and mostly targeted Black Arlingtonians, while others included Middle Eastern immigrants, Jewish people and Armenians.

These covenants, codified by developers in conjunction with county government, applied to all future property transfers unless a property owner removed them. Only a handful did so after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these covenants were unconstitutional in 1948.

DeWitt says she and Neun would have started their research at the Arlington County courthouse, leafing through physical pre-1951 property records, but due to Covid they conducted research every way they could until the county wrapped up a two-year project to digitize land records documents.

Even with the digital copies, the records still need to be read and searched by hand.

“Property records are tremendously inconsistent,” DeWitt said. “It’s incredibly difficult to parse this. It requires a high-touch approach.”

Once she and Neun find a deed with a restrictive clause, they match it with a current address and plug it into a map.

So far, they have mapped out covenants on properties in the Arlington Forest and Bellevue Forest neighborhoods. They found covenants for the historic subdivisions of Country Club View, Flower Gardens, Jackson Terrace and Woodlawn Village, which are now part of the Donaldson Run, Penrose, Tara-Leeway Heights and Waycroft-Woodlawn neighborhoods, respectively.

Some subdivisions where racially restrictive covenants have been documented (via Arlington Historical Society)

So far, DeWitt and Neun have observed these restrictions date from 1910 — and possibly earlier — all the way until the mid-1950s.

And some deeds were euphemistic, prohibiting occupancy “except for the race for which it is intended,” or prohibiting stables, pig pens, temporary dwellings and high fences.

“It’s amazing how you can vary restricting somebody,” said Neun, a former housing lawyer turned community educator.

Early and late examples of racially restrictive covenants (via Arlington Historical Society)

Racial exclusion in Arlington tracks with regulations at the state and federal level, Neun said.

When Democrats took control of Virginia state politics in the early 1900s, they championed “homogeneity” — the idea that “homogeneous populations do better, live better, are happier and less risky,” Neun said.

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The local NAACP is calling on the Arlington County Board to do more to encourage affordable homeownership opportunities for residents of color.

Although segregation officially ended last century, the Arlington branch of the NAACP says non-white residents are still effectively excluded from some neighborhoods due to county zoning codes, compounded by rising housing costs.

“The widespread single-family zoning scheme that prevents the construction of new housing in affluent, mostly white neighborhoods also worsens racial segregation by confining the construction of new affordable housing units to the Columbia Pike corridor and other parts of Arlington with large non-white populations,” the NAACP wrote in a letter to the county.

“People of color wishing to live in Arlington deserve meaningful opportunities to choose from a wide variety of housing types, in many parts of the county, at a reasonable cost,” the letter continues.

The NAACP says the county needs to adopt a comprehensive strategy to reform the county’s zoning laws and housing policies. It suggests reforms that go beyond those being considered in the Missing Middle Housing Study.

“We support the County’s many studies and other initiatives to promote affordable housing,” it concludes. “The best way to ensure the success of these initiatives is for the County Board and County Manager to show decisive leadership now and commit to supporting comprehensive zoning reform.”

Through Missing Middle, the county is considering whether and what kind of low-density multifamily housing could fit into single-family home neighborhoods. The county says allowing more housing types in these neighborhoods can reverse the lingering impacts of yesteryear’s racist zoning policies.

“The Missing Middle Housing Study has documented the role that Arlington’s land use and zoning policies have played in contributing to racial disparities in housing and access to opportunity,” says Erika Moore, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. “Conducting the Missing Middle Housing Study is one of many deliberate choices the County is making to address the mistakes of the past and pave a new path for Arlington’s future.”

While supportive of the study, the NAACP suggests solutions beyond its parameters.

It recommends every redevelopment be assessed for whether it would perpetuate historical exclusion or displace the existing community. If so, developers would have to use a “displacement prevention and mitigation toolkit” to reverse those impacts.

This toolkit could include:

  • property tax deferrals for lower-income homeowners
  • funding for Community Land Trust acquisitions
  • preferences for first-generation homebuyers
  • stabilization funds for residents at risk of displacement

The toolkit would “address the unique needs of and the displacement risk experienced by the community in and around site-plan and by-right developments while also helping to address patterns of historical exclusion experienced by members of protected classes,” the letter says.

These and other tools should also receive county and state funding, like a quick-strike land acquisition account, which would be used to quickly purchase properties for affordable housing development, and targeted homeownership assistance programs, the NAACP says.

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The Garrison residence (courtesy of Les Garrison)

The owner of a two-family home near Crystal City says he may cancel his redevelopment plans because county approval processes have delayed construction and run up costs.

“As of right now, the project is on hold, possibly dead, because the County delayed it so long that the prices of construction (up 40%) not to mention the $150,000 in costs so far to get it approved, have made it unaffordable,” owner Les Garrison tells ARLnow. “The payback time is now unreasonable.”

It’s an outcome that Planning Commission members have said would be avoided if homes like his — duplexes on nonconforming lots — enjoyed the simpler, cheaper reviews that allow owners and developers to replace aging single-family dwellings with larger, luxury homes, sometimes referred to derisively as “McMansions.”

The main difference, they say, comes down to the fact that it’s a multi-family building.

Garrison’s proposal requires community review as well as Planning Commission and County Board approvals because he plans to increase the square footage of his house, which sits on a smaller-than-average lot. But commissioners argue more renovations on nonconforming lots will come forward and the county should preempt them with a faster approval track.

Since these hypothetical projects would update existing low-rise multi-family buildings — which are not permitted in many neighborhoods under current zoning — commissioners suggest considering these changes via the Missing Middle Housing Study. The study’s primary goal is to evaluate whether county codes should allow housing types like as duplexes and townhouses in districts zoned exclusively for single-family homes.

“As much as it’s important to end legacies of exclusionary zoning practices, we also have to be certain there are administrative options for improving and expanding existing multi-unit housing,” Planning Commission Chair Daniel Weir said during a meeting with the County Board and the planning division earlier this month.

Such projects go through Site Plan Review, which major development projects use, but as a potential alternative they could go through the Board of Zoning Appeals, which hears special exception requests from single-family homeowners, James Lantelme, Weir’s predecessor, previously said.

Multi-family homes like Garrison’s and oversized single-family homes are linked in another way: both often result in greater lot coverage, which often means fewer trees and plantings. The relative ease with which “McMansions” are built, compared to similar-sized multi-family units, has led some County Board members to ask the question: if both are permitted, just how big is too big?

Building up to tear down

Opposition to adding density falls into a few buckets, such as impact on existing infrastructure and loss of natural resources.

On environmental degradation, the county says keeping out duplexes won’t preserve neighborhoods from the tree loss and stormwater runoff associated with development, given the teardown-rebuild trend. Adding multi-family homes would, however, open up neighborhoods to people who can’t afford the average sale price for a rebuild in Arlington, which currently stands at $1.7 million.

Over the last decade, 1,245 homes came down and were rebuilt, for an average of 125 homes per year, according to a county report. Typically, the tear-downs are 1,515 square feet and the new construction is 4,750 square feet. This contributed to the drop in tree canopy coverage from 43% in 2008 to 41% in 2016, another county report says.

“This is a rather fast-moving problem,” County Board member Takis Karantonis said during the February meeting.

It’s one member Libby Garvey said “we should dip our toes into” through the Missing Middle study.

That’s the plan, says Anthony Fusarelli, Jr., planning director for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.

“Between now and October, we might have a better handle on some emerging recommendations — but I do expect that will be considered in some way,” he told County Board members.

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Arlington’s planning division is looking to change the definition of a “family” in the county’s zoning code.

Housing planners say this would stop potentially exclusionary housing practices that discriminate against larger groups of unrelated residents who live together in order to afford staying in Arlington, where home prices and property taxes are rising and there’s a shortage of affordable housing options.

Currently, Arlington’s Zoning Ordinance says up to four unrelated people living together — including “servants,” in a peculiar anachronism — can constitute a “family.” The Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development staff intend to review and possibly write an alternative definition that eliminates the four-person cap.

The code also defines “family” as: a single person living in a household; two or more people living together who are related by blood, marriage, adoption or foster care; or up to eight people who are elderly, sick or disabled living with staff or counselors in a state-licensed facility.

Planning Commission Chair David Weir says he welcomes CPHD’s intentions to do away with the “exclusionary, inaccurate terminology of ‘single-family’ and ‘multifamily’ homes.”

“It’s tempting, I think, to see this change as minimal or immaterial but it’s neither of those things,” he said during a joint CPHD-County Board work session last week. “The difference between zoning for families and zoning for households is as fundamental a matter as the right to choose the people with whom we share our lives, and zoning ordinances are lagging behind other fields of law — like, for example, family law — in recognizing this.”

Planning Commission Chair David Weir (via Arlington County)

Weir recalled when the late County Board member Erik Gutshall realized in a zoning meeting that his family of four probably lived in violation of county ordinances when they took in a foreign exchange student.

“A group of people who choose to share their lives in ways that don’t meet the Mayberry formalities must not for that reason alone be unwelcome in the definitions of the laws that shape how their homes are built,” he said.

County planners have recommended this change for a few years now, saying that people are choosing to live together to afford Arlington prices and access its schools and job opportunities.

“There’s been a rise in the number of non-traditional households living together for socio-economic reasons, such as pooling resources to find affordable housing near good schools or job centers,” county housing planner Joel Franklin said at a 2020 Tenant-Landlord Commission meeting. “For that reason, it was recommended to amend the zoning ordinance to be more inclusive of non-traditional families.”

That recommendation was in the 2019 draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing, according to CPHD spokeswoman Erika Moore. The analysis concludes that the cap disadvantages residents who have been priced out of single-family homes.

“As the norms of the American family are shifting, it is apparent that single-family housing is less viable, increasingly unaffordable, and not achieving fairness and inclusion,” it says. “Placing restrictions on the number of unrelated persons living together but who function as a single housekeeping unit restricts housing choice for households comprised of persons living together for economic or other reasons.”

Changing or eliminating the four-person cap dates back at least to 2015, when the County Board adopted the Affordable Housing Master Plan, Moore said. The plan says a more flexible definition is one way the county can try to meet its affordable housing needs through 2040.

While making the change is on the agenda for CPHD, a new definition won’t come overnight.

The planning division identified revising the definition as a second-tier priority for 2022, falling behind more pressing zoning study areas — such as allowing permanent outdoor dining options, permitting micro-fulfillment centers to operate in vacant office buildings and adding elder care housing options in the code.

Tiered priorities of the Arlington planning division (via Arlington County)

Updating the definition would require the county to start a zoning study to examine alternative definitions and develop amendments to the Zoning Ordinance, Moore said.

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(Updated at 2:25 p.m.) A D.C.-based dog daycare and boarding facility is making its first foray out of the nation’s capital with a Clarendon outpost.

District Dogs will move into The Crossing Clarendon shopping center (formerly Market Common Clarendon) in February or March, owner Jacob Hensley tells ARLnow. In addition to daycare and boarding, District Dogs provides other services such as grooming and training.

“We’re very excited to come to Arlington,” he said. “Right now, we have the designs finished and construction plans out to bid. We should be getting bids and contractors in the next couple of weeks or so, and we expect to be open late winter or early spring.”

The business will front Wilson Blvd, according to a photo sent by Hensley, in a ground floor space between the Whole Foods and where Iota Club used to be.

There is one hurdle to surmount: zoning rules about how many dogs can be boarded per night. According to a zoning determination this summer, District Dogs can operate in Clarendon as a doggie daycare and grooming facility, with overnight boarding for up to three dogs. Any more overnight occupants, and it’s considered by the county a “kennel,” which is not allowed on the property either by-right or through a special exception permit.

Regency Centers, which owns The Crossing, is appealing the decision on Hensley’s behalf. Either way, District Dogs can move in, Hensley says.

“District Dogs will be able to offer daycare, boarding, grooming and training services in the Clarendon location regardless of the outcome,” he said. “I can’t comment further [about zoning issues] because of how complicated it is and I don’t want to get the details wrong.”

The forthcoming Arlington location will be Hensley’s fifth. He started District Dogs in 2014 as a one-man dog-walking business and opened his first brick-and-mortar facility in 2016 in D.C. Since then, he’s added two more D.C. locations, with a fourth under-construction.

Clarendon was a natural choice, since District Dogs targets markets with a mix of apartments and single-family homes, and many clients come to D.C. from Northern Virginia, he said.

Hensley says Arlington’s urban corridors need more of these kinds of dog-care facilities, as many existing providers are located in warehouse and industrial districts. Many customers will be able to walk to District Dogs, compared to having to drive somewhere a distance away.

“We’re bringing a more urban dog daycare experience that’s more convenient for people and where they live,” he said.

Hensley said District Dogs aims to make dogs and their humans feel comfortable. For pet owners, that means providing web-cameras so they can check in, as well as operating in spaces with lots of windows.

“We’re really just trying to show everything that goes on,” he said. “That’s what’s lacking in a lot of facilities, which can be old and run-down in a warehouse.”

Hensley attributes his ability to expand in part to COVID-19. People adopted more dogs during the pandemic and now need the services he provides, particularly weeknight, overnight boarding.

“Our facilities in D.C. are pretty much at-capacity in a daily basis,” he said. “In addition to new dogs, since people can work remote, people are traveling more… Because people’s work is so much more flexible, not just travel but the length of travel is increasing.”

Once District Dogs settles into Clarendon, locals can expect dog-friendly community activities.

“We have a great online community, and we try to do events at restaurants, bars and parks,” Hensley said. “We’re trying to bring a sense of dog community to the Arlington area — we want to be a part of it and help foster it.”

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In late 2019, Arlington’s rate of vacant office space was at a six-year low, 15.5%, and poised to continue dropping.

But the pandemic reversed that trend, and today, the vacancy rate hovers around 20%.

While companies continue to weigh going in-person, county staff are working to bring down the vacancy rate. That’s a crucial task for Arlington County, as it derives its commercial property taxes from full — not vacant — office buildings.

“We know nonprofits and associations have been hit hard and that’s a big part of our office market, so that’s troubling. When it comes to tech, government contracting and professional services, there’s a lot of differences among tenants you talk to in terms of their culture: if they are back, how they feel about having people back, how many days a week they’re back,” says Marian Marquez, the director of business investment for Arlington Economic Development. “Until we get past the health crisis, it’s going to be hard to see through a lot of that.”

One new variable is 600,000 square feet of space on the sublease market, which is double the pre-pandemic level and accounts for 7% of total vacancies, she says. In addition, some federal tenants long on their way out finally had their offices go to market.

The office vacancy problem is an entrenched one and not unique to Arlington, says Marc McCauley, AED’s director of real estate.

“For the past decade… the question of ‘Do we have too much office space in the U.S.? has been the major issue,” he said. “That’s not just an Arlington issue, or a Washington, D.C. issue. Even before pandemic, tenants were using space differently, space per employee was plummeting, and almost cut in half.”

From 2016 to 2019, AED worked to drop the 21% vacancy rate by convincing high-growth companies that Arlington “wasn’t a government town,” Marquez said. Now, AED staff and county planners are working to update zoning codes and allow for a wider variety of office tenants, while making zoning processes less onerous for owners seeking to renovate their aging offices. In addition, AED is encouraging, where it can, less speculative office construction and more residential development instead.

McCauley says the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development plans to study approved office space uses and find ways to expanded those to allow new tenants.

“We see tenants that come in and say, ‘I want to do a wet lab or a robotics engineering floor.’ Right now, zoning is an impediment to that — that would be viewed as industrial in an older code,” he said. “We want to open up offices to creative use of space… [We are] excited about letting them fill the space with newer technologies that an older, 1950s ordinance viewed as industrial.”

Marquez said there’s interest in innovation and light research and development spaces, or even using an office building as a micro-fulfillment center.

Salim Furth, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who recently wrote that municipalities can tackle their office vacancy rates by allowing residential development, tells ARLnow that Arlington could go a step further and allow an even greater mix of uses.

“It’s very normal to have some floor for office, and ground floor is retail… but mixing and matching uses — where some floors are for a hotel, some are for a school — these are very normal things that cities should do, and we should make it work,” he said.

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