At Last: Zoning Restrictions on “Middle Housing” Are Coming Under Scrutiny

A neighborhood of detached single-family dwellings in Arlington.

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.

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24 responses to “At Last: Zoning Restrictions on “Middle Housing” Are Coming Under Scrutiny”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    The thing about single-family that is close in – is that it is highly desirable and that’s what’s motivating the tear-downs. I just don’t think the person who wants to do a tear-down for a single family is going to want multi-family.

    The other thing that has to be recognized is that zoning is not willy-nilly against density. But Density requires more infrastructure – you just can’t just double the density without impacts to transportation, schools, water/sewer. That makes those projects more expensive than if they were being built on raw undeveloped land.

    And there’s an irony here in that a lot of critics of “restrictive” zoning are ALSO critics of Mass Transit. How are you going to re-program a place like Arlington to be more dense if you’re not going to have mass transit to serve it?

    I think Northam is right to want to build a Washington-Richmond (higher capacity) rail that can serve both Amtrak and Commuter Rail. He’s going to run into fierce opposition from those along side the existing corridor and I do wonder if Conservatives will support the concept or join the opposition and basically remain primarily opposed as opposed to actual solutions.

    There is no more room on I-95 for more cars. You’ve got to go to rail. Let’s see if Conservatives will support it.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Okay – “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….”

    This is far too simplistic. Row upon linear row of duplexes, and townhouses get tired, rundown, mind-numbing, grossly inefficient and counter productive very quick.


    Frankly, being late 1940s and 1950s middle class is not what Arlington County wants to be or can be or should be even if some engineer’s mind conjures up such an unimaginative myopic old fashioned faux solution for a wildly different future. Logic and reductive thinking has no place here, not at this stage anyway. Arlington County wants to be imaginative, creative, eclectic, and elastic and thus build it all within its reworked living places – that is truly diverse, stylish, and hip, which mean wealthy and exiting, and rewarding for all who are meant to work and live there in that new Arlington. Thus Arlington must escape its past while building on its bones in best ways possible.

    To do that people need to do the reverse of this straight jacket proposal, junk it, and build new variations that grow naturally out of the bones of old successful solutions. But this has all been done before. So the first steps now here is discovering the best solutions found for these same problems and opportunities, truly achieved in the past.

    Take a six month road trip – collect specimens of what has worked best elsewhere when great changes demanded it, say in Louisville, Charleston, New Orleans, New York, Chicago. Bring specimens back home, mix and sort them, shake them up, fit them into a myriad of schematic versions of Arlington, brainstorm what happens on those initially empty or tired boards. Do it in an open minded, free for all, way and right solutions inevitable will emerge naturally.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      I agree with your road trip to successful American cities idea. It wouldn’t be as much fun as a junket to the Middle East but it would accomplish a whole lot more.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Others are far more expert than I about the distribution of taxes and benefits between regions of Virginia by reason of its political structures.

        Irrespective of those issues, an overarching truth should be constantly considered when deciding future schemes of land use, transportation, and economic development in Northern Virginia, and Arlington County alone, namely:

        1/ Northern Virginia likely now has more potential for economic growth and wealth creation in the short, intermediate, and long term, than any other region of comparable size on the planet earth.

        2/ This immense growth and wealth potential, if realized, will spin enormous benefits of all kinds out across Virginia, including its now underdeveloped regions. Already this is happening. And the synergistic benefits of that outlying growth is also showing how Northern Virginia benefits from that outlying growth. 2+2 can equal 6, and then 8, and ever higher, as this interplay and synergy continues. Thus, Virginia’s regions soon will be far more interdependent and inter-beneficial to one another than ever before in history.

        3/ Given its poor land use, development, and transportation decisions in the past, Northern Virginia as built is likely the most highly dysfunctional region in the nation comparatively speaking, given its current throttled potential and the harm that it reeks on its region and its state.


        The underlying facts of Item 1 & 2 give us all enormous, indeed unprecedented, resources to fix item 3, and thus to jump start, unleash and grow the immense power now locked up in Items 1 & 2.

        Now at last the stars are aligned. The benefits to be had now by bold action are unprecedented in Virginia’s long history.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    Arlington should do what they want to do. Unlike any other county in Virginia (other than Henrico) Arlington controls its own streets. They can balance development and transportation. All the other NoVa counties can’t do that. They allow higher density and the roads get more clogged as the General Assembly bumbles forward without an effective transportation plan. Ask the people in McLean.

    I completely agree that density is the key to NoVa’s success. However, density requires additional road capacity until a truly urban density is achieved. Arlington is at 8,000 people per square mile. At 10,000 to 11,000 they would be dense enough that people could legitimately start giving up their cars and use mass transportation almost exclusively (like in Chicago).

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Arlington and Henrico control their own streets NOT Federa or State roads.

      Neither of the two jurisdictions can make changes to US or State designated roads. They CAN make changes to LOCAL roads.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        State roads in Arlington:

        Interstate 66: Custis Memorial Parkway
        Interstate 395: Henry G. Shirley Memorial Highway
        U.S. Route 1: Richmond Highway
        State Route 27: Washington Boulevard (Memorial Bridge to U.S. Route 50)
        U.S. Route 29: Lee Highway
        U.S. Route 50: Arlington Boulevard
        State Route 110: Richmond Highway (Rosslyn to Crystal City)
        State Route 120: Glebe Road
        State Route 123: Chain Bridge Road
        State Route 124: Spout Run Parkway (Lee Highway to Lorcom Lane)
        State Route 233: Airport Viaduct
        State Route 237: Washington Boulevard (North Glebe Road to Lee Highway)
        State Route 309: Old Dominion Drive

        Federal roads in Arlington:
        Arlington Hall Street
        Boundary Channel Drive
        George Washington Memorial Parkway
        Fort Myer streets, including Arlington National Cemetery
        Marshall Drive (North Meade Street to U.S. Route 110)
        Memorial Avenue
        Pentagon Street
        Spout Run Parkway (Lorcom Lane to George Washington Memorial Parkway)

        Other than the George Washington Memorial Parkway there aren’t a lot of high capacity roads under Federal control.

        If I were on the Arlington County Board of Supervisors I would not implement that zoning decision unless the state granted the county control of the state roads inside the county too. There could be long term coordination but Arlington needs control. As everybody in Northern Virginia has learned …

        Never, ever, ever trust the Virginia General Assembly. Not once. Not ever.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    If one takes a look at the water/sewer capacity of Arlington – it’s a finite number and it’s no where near enough to provide water/sewer across the region for high density zoning.

    It’s simplistic to say that in a less restrictive environment that Arlington could, if they wanted, support high density rezones – everywhere.

    They can’t. In fact, they already have CSO issues.

    Instead, Arlington, like other urban allows PROPOSALS where part of the process is to determine if the infrastructure needed for the density is available and if not, how much it will cost to provide it.

    That’s NOT “restrictive zoning” in the sense that it’s arbitrary or even driven by NIMBY. There are real finite -real world physical and fiscal limitations to dense zoning.

    And we do not make much progress on the issue when we basically demonize the jurisdictions as being “anti dense”.

    Somewhere in the middle of this -there are some common sense issues that affect density but don’t let that bother the folks with anti-govt agendas.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Arlington has averaged more than 10% population growth every decade since 1980. From 2010 to 2018 they have growth 14.4%. It seems to me that that can handle the water and sewer requirements of high growth.

      I also challenge Jim Bacon’s overall thesis that restrictive zoning is retarding growth (and the resulting density) in Arlington. Arlington is 26 sq mi. Over the last 38 years Arlington’s population grew by 84,000 people (an increase of almost 3,100 people per sq mi.). That additional density is almost equal to the total density of Richmond. That increase was not based on single family homes. One way or another Arlington is building multi-family / high density housing regardless of the supposedly restrictive zoning.

      1. Let’s be clear. Yes, it’s true that Arlington has increased its housing stock and its population has increased. Nobody is disputing that. I’m saying that densification has not kept pace with underlying property values. The market could support significantly higher density, and restrictive zoning is preventing it from doing so.

        1. djrippert Avatar

          Arlington has a density of 8,000 per sq mi. That’s more than twice the density of Dallas and more dense than Minneapolis, Baltimore and Oakland. The (real) City of Chicago has a density of 10,874 per sq mi. Chicago’s density is achieved with buildings like Lake Point Tower – a 70 story residential building with 1.3m sq ft.

          You believe the market could support significantly higher density. I don’t. At least not without dramatically changing the look and feel of Arlington. And building duplexes instead of single family homes is no more than a spit into the ocean. Another 35,000 Arlingtonians and the county will have the density of Chicago. That’s about the same pace of addition as from 1998 to 2018. The only way to get there is by going up.

          Arlington has a 390 ft building height restriction and those tall buildings are only allowed in the so-called peaks of Arlington’s peaks and valleys zoning. Lake Point Tower is 645 ft tall. Meanwhile, that’s not the tallest residential building in Chicago. On the books:

          Second phase of Tribune Tower renovation: 1,422 ft
          Vista Tower: 1,389 ft
          400N Lake Shore Dr: 1,000 ft
          One Chicago: 1,046 ft
          Lakeshore East, Parcel I (under construction): 950 ft
          NEMA Chicago (open): 896 ft
          1000M condo tower: 832 ft
          110 North Wacker Dr: 817 ft

          NEMA Chicago is an apartment building with rents from $1,800 per month for a studio to $25,000 per month for a four-bedroom.

          Good luck to Arlington trying to significantly increase its population density with a 390 ft height limit. That would be about 28 stories. The Vista Tower in Chicago, expected to open in 2020, is 98 stories tall.

          I’ve stayed at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. The condo-hotel building is 1,388 ft tall rising 98 floors.

          If Arlington wants to play with big boy cities that have 10,000 – 20,000 people per sq mi they’ll have to learn to think like the big boys.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        I was under the impression that they have a CSO issue, no?

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          Alexandria has the CSO problem, not Arlington. According to the Arlington solid waste master plan, its sewage treatment plant was recently upgraded to a capacity of 40 million gallons per day. In 2015, the average daily flow was 24 million gallons. So, Arlington seems to have sufficient excess capacity to accommodate growth.

  5. djrippert Avatar

    “A state study estimates that adding one lane to I–95 between Springfield and Thornburg in Spotsylvania County would cost $12.5 billion”

    I85 terminates in Petersburg. Do you mean I95?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      he means I-95 …

      the problem in adding lanes is that every single overpass, bridge and interchange has to be torn down and rebuilt and to include buying commercially-zoned land along it. People forget that.

      It’s 53 miles from Springfield to Thornburg .. the cost is basically over 200 million dollars a mile.

      If you put that cost on the people who actually would use that road – in the form of tolls – as opposed to try to get RoVa to help pay -you’ll hear all kinds of nasty vitriol from the me me me folks.

      Keep in mind also – this region has essentially made I-95 unuseable for it’s intended original purpose of allowing people up and down the East coast to move up and down the East Coast via interstate highway.

      This region has effectively destroyed that capability.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        “This region has effectively destroyed that capability.”

        Hogwash. The region has been growing like a weed for decades. You know – succeeding, expanding, providing more opportunities, financing the rest of the state. The state hasn’t kept up with the need for more transportation capacity as that growth happened. The state has also grossly misspent its transportation dollars. A 4 lane beltway around Richmond? Are you kidding me?

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          Leave our beltway out of this!

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          Yes – the region HAS but in the process they have effectively destroyed the utility of I-95 for folks outside the region – trying to travel through the region.

          DJR – the beltway around Richmond is crowded. It’s not as crowded as the Washington beltway but if that traffic were trying to go through downtown RIchmond, it would been a disaster.

          My bigger point about the interstates is that I-95 was explicitly designed to move east coast traffic up and down the corridor including truck traffic and the NoVa area has essentially destroyed that capability for most hours of the day. They have essentially used I-95 to “grow” instead of building their own separate regional network.

          Imagine if every Urban Area in the Us worked this way.

          1. djrippert Avatar

            Richmond MSA is about 1/5 the population of the Washington MSA. If Richmond needs a 4 lane beltway then Washington needs a 20 lane beltway.

            ” … the NoVa area has essentially destroyed that capability for most hours of the day.”

            The NoVa area hasn’t done anything other than send $.79 of every $1.00 in state taxes to be spent elsewhere. The roads are managed by VDOT not the localities. “Building their own separate regional network”? Larry, how many years have you been commenting on this blog? The anal retentive, power mongering incompetents in the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond control everything … including the possibility of building separate regional transportation networks.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think you can successfully claim the I-95 problem on NoVa on Richmond… If you need “more lanes” – shouldn’t NoVa pay to build them?

    And didn’t Richmond give ya’ll a pile of money for METRO?

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Richmond doesn’t give anybody anything. Everything the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond “gives” was taken under threat of force from the people who earned the money. In Fairfax County, for every $1 the Imperial Clown Show takes it gives back $.21. If NoVa got back $1 for every $1 taken (less a small amount for state government overhead) there would be no transportation problems.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        no – what you’re saying is HOGWASH – show me where you got your numbers… then we’ll talk. And be sure to include all the METRO money you’ve gotten. And don’t confuse school money with transportation money… all States, by law, must equalize funding for education – which the rich areas give more – that’s not just NoVa and Richmond.

        NOVA has effectively destroyed I-95 for east coast travelers. It has co-opted a road paid for by all taxpayers to serve NoVa to the detriment of anyone outside the region trying to use I-95 to get through the region on their way to somewhere else.

        That has NOTHING to do with Richmond and Everything to do with NoVA’s irresponsible approach to “growth”.

        Arlington gets it. They want to not build auto-centric development – they want to discourage car traffic inside of their jurisdictioin. But Fairfax is a whole different story…

        And it’s laughable when I hear folks from Fairfax complain about it – they blame Richmond, they blame developers, they blame commuters.. they never take responsibility for what they’ve built – which is basically an auto-centric region where even getting across a street on foot is putting your life in your own hands…

        Fairfax will never morph into a real city until – it does what other successful cities have done which is to incentivize mobility over private solo cars.

  7. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    There should be proffers to address the additional burdens placed on infrastructure by replacement of one house with multiple homes on the same lot.

    Once again, the stupidest voters in the state live in NoVA. They go along with all of these schemes to fleece themselves for the benefit of keeping real estate taxes low in the rest of Virginia.

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