by James A. Bacon
Arlington County plans to study the “missing middle” in its housing market: homes that fall between apartment-sized units and single-family dwellings — in its housing market.
Ninety percent of the county’s residential land is zoned for detached, single-family houses. The median housing price in the county falls between $530,000 and $640,000, and the arrival of Amazon is likely to drive prices even higher. A big part of the problem, says Richard Tucker, acting coordinator of Housing Arlington, is restrictive zoning. WAMU summarizes his thinking:
Too much single-family zoning is leading to a proliferation of teardowns, Tucker says. In neighborhoods throughout the county, property owners are bulldozing smaller single-family homes to make way for mansions that swallow up entire lots. Teardowns are common in neighborhoods where zoning is restricted to single-family construction, Tucker says, but they’re expensive to build and own, so they don’t contribute affordable housing to the county. They also take up a lot of land that could be used more efficiently, he says.
If owners had the option to build duplexes and triplexes instead of McMansions, Tucker says, maybe they would. “What we hope to do is identify other options for these property owners,” the planner says.
The goal is not to eliminate single-family housing — single-family homes will always be an option. Rather, Arlington planners want to identify parts of the county that would be well-suited to other housing types, too.
The inability to recycle land into denser, more valuable configurations is a root problem for much of what ails Arlington, the rest of Northern Virginia, and other Virginia metros. The demand for housing in urban core localities exceeds the supply, which drives up prices and makes them unaffordable to an increasing share of the population. The affordability issue is closely tied to homelessness, quality of life, and transportation.
While I jokingly refer to Arlington as “the People’s Republic,” county planners do get one big thing right: They understand the intimate connection between land use and transportation. They understand that as the population of the Washington metropolitan area grows, land values in the urban core (which includes Arlington) will rise, and as land values rise, the cost of housing will become increasingly unaffordable unless property owners are allowed to densify and build more housing units. Further, they understand that zoning restrictions, along with the NIMBY instincts of homeowners, thwart the natural evolution to more multi-family apartments and condominiums, and that the higher price of housing displaces lower-income people to more distant localities with cheaper real estate and housing.
Homelessness is one manifestation of the housing shortage created by zoning restrictions. Another is the strain placed on Virginia’s Interstates and transportation arteries to accommodate the long-distance commutes of workers on the metropolitan periphery to job centers in the core. These commuters are creating endless gridlock beyond the fiscal capacity of Virginia to fix. A state study estimates that adding one lane to I–85 between Springfield and Thornburg in Spotsylvania County would cost $12.5 billion, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Northam administration thinks that expanding rail capacity is a better answer, but the deal the administration just cut with CSX Corp. to do just that still will cost $3.7 billion.
No, the answer, as former contributor E M Risse argued so persuasively on this blog, is (1) to build communities with a balance of readily accessible housing, jobs, retail, and amenities, (2) at higher densities, (3) with walkable streets, (4) supported by appropriate mass transit. The idea is to make it easier for people reach their destinations by walking or biking, by taking the bus or rail, or, if they must drive, by taking shorter trips.
Meanwhile, in General Assembly action…. Del. Ibraheem S. Samirah, D-Herndon, has submitted HB152, which would promote the “middle housing” concept across the state. The bill:
requires allow localities to allow development or redevelopment of “middle housing” residential units upon each lot zoned for single-family residential use. Middle housing is defined as two-family residential units, including duplexes, townhouses, cottages, and any similar structure. Such structures shall not require a special use permit….
While I whole-heartedly support the loosening of restrictions on middle housing, I’m not comfortable with a statewide mandate requiring it in all residential zoning. Even the Arlington study doesn’t go that far. Arlington’s idea is to identify residential areas where middle housing might be appropriate.
But one way or the other, Virginia must come to grips with the malign impact of overly restrictive zoning.There are currently no comments highlighted.