Samirah Bill Inspires Debate Over Residential Zoning

Ibrahim Samirah

by James A. Bacon

Suburban Virginians were the key swing voters who gave Democrats majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. It will be interesting to see if Democrats now manage to alienate them.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Herndon, has submitted a bill, HB 152, that would require zoning ordinances in localities across the state to allow “middle housing” — duplexes, townhouses, cottages and other structures — in neighborhoods zoned for single-family dwellings.

Samirah characterizes the mandate as an “affordable housing” initiative.  He quite accurately says that residential zoning restrictions restrict the supply of new housing construction by limiting housing units to one per lot. But rhetorically he goes off the rails. Describing suburbs as “mostly white and wealthy,” he implies that people wishing to live in safe, peaceful neighborhoods are guilty of racial discrimination.

“Because middle housing is what’s most affordable for low-income people and people of color, banning that housing in well-off neighborhoods chalks up to modern-day redlining, locking folks out of areas with better access to schools, jobs, transit, and other services and amenities,” he wrote on Facebook (as quoted by the Daily Caller, a conservative web publication).

Tim Hannigan, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, responds that urban Democrats are launching a war on the suburbs. Writes the Daily Caller News Foundation:

“This could completely change the character of suburban residential life, because of the urbanization that would develop,” he told the DCNF. “So much of the American dream is built upon this idea of finding a nice quiet place to raise your family, and that is under assault.”

“This is a power-grab to take away the ability of local communities to establish their own zoning practices … literally trying to change the character of our communities,” he said.

Bacon’s bottom line: At the risk of siding with a social justice warrior, some of whose rhetoric I dislike, I have to say that Samirah has a point. Indeed, Samirah is making the same point that Bacon’s Rebellion has hammered on for years: the unaffordable housing crisis in Virginia is a supply-side problem created by zoning restrictions. Demand for housing, created by population growth, has increased faster than supply, which has been choked by zoning restrictions.

Here’s what Samirah says on a Facebook post yesterday about his bill (my emphasis):

The purpose is to allow the market more opportunities to build housing units, which would help alleviate the housing shortage and help bring down costs. This would NOT get rid of single-family housing. In fact, my bill explicitly states that single-family housing types are still allowed on the lots that are zoned for them. My bill does not mandate anyone do anything with their housing—it’s up to property owners to decide what they want to do.

If Samirah were politically shrewd, instead of guilt-tripping suburbanites for wanting to live in safe, quiet neighborhoods with low taxes and good schools — something that “people of color” also aspire to — he would consistently champion free markets and property rights. Why shouldn’t homeowners be allowed to supplement their income by converting garages or apartments into granny flats? Why shouldn’t property owners be allowed to tear down a 60’s-era rancher and build a duplex in its place? It’s their property.

I do have reservations about the bill — I don’t like the state stepping in and dictating changes to local zoning codes. Government closest to the people governs best. But as D.J. Rippert has frequently warned on this blog, Republicans who long defended the Dillon Rule, giving the state primacy over localities, wouldn’t much like it when Democrats took control of the legislature and began imposing their policies statewide. Now the worm has turned.

Arlington County seems to have a better approach. The county is studying where “middle housing” would be appropriate — perhaps where housing is already dense and there is access to mass transit — rather than presupposing that it would be appropriate everywhere.

Also, why focus exclusively on residential neighborhoods? If we want to expand the supply of housing, we should be encouraging mixed-used development in the abundant land set aside in every locality for commercial and industrial uses. Apartments and condos in commercial districts are less likely to conflict with single-family neighborhoods, and they tend to be located on commercial corridors better adapted to mass transit.

Despite those reservations, I applaud Samirah for raising an issue that the General Assembly should have addressed a long time ago. Yeah, I wish he would avoid the guilt-tripping rhetoric… which, by the way, I think is counter-productive and won’t persuade anyone who doesn’t want to be persuaded. But the housing affordability issue is intensifying — especially in Northern Virginia — and Samirah proposes a  response that is compatible with market principles and property rights. He’s not proposing (at least not in this bill) New York/San Francisco-style solutions like rent control or forcing developers to set aside below-market rate housing in new projects. In a Democrat-controlled legislature, we could see a lot worse.

Republican lawmakers face a choice. They can treat HB 152 as an issue that can help them win back the suburbs. Or they can live up to their free-market, pro-property rights principles and work with Democrats to address the housing affordability crisis.

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26 responses to “Samirah Bill Inspires Debate Over Residential Zoning

  1. Easy for you to say, safely ensconced on your 1/3 acre lot in a fully developed area of your county with little threat of said legislation directly affecting you (unless two or three of your neighbors band together, consolidated their lots and throw up a stick of townhomes).

    The bill is crap and nothing but crap, filed simply to stoke the social warfare fires. The unintended consequences alone could rapidly drive the Commonwealth into a worse fiscal state than California.

    The Delegate is no “social warrior”, rather he is simply a racist asshat, the Democrat equivalent of Corey Stewart, saying shit just to stir shit.

  2. From the Republican response, it seems that, if it were the Delegate’s assumption that “people wishing to live in safe, peaceful neighborhoods are guilty of racial discrimination”, that assumption might have some merit. The Republican chairman says that the “idea of finding a nice quiet place to raise your family” is under assault by this potential “urbanization”. (A lot of code words in there.)

    Returning to the overall idea that restrictive zoning is what leads to a shortage of affordable housing, sometimes that shortage is due to the greed of developers. I can point to three areas in Henrico that once had apartments, duplexes, and older housing stock. A developer (I think it was the same developer in all three cases) bought up those parcels, tore down the cheaper, affordable housing, and put in single family houses, higher end townhomes, and commercial/office buildings. (In at least one of these cases, I think the developer owned the property involved and just converted it to higher end, i.e. more profitable.) A lot of affordable housing in the Richmond/Henrico area disappeared with those developments. Whatever zoning changes the developers needed were provided by the Henrico Board of Supervisors.

  3. Affordable housing is definitely an issue in a number of Virginia localities. However, is this really the answer? Theoretically, an increase in the supply of units could lower housing costs. But…I think this bill is very misguided. Allowing a cottage or carriage house here or there is going to do NOTHING to lower housing costs. Instead, it will just be an opportunity for a few suburban homeowners to make a little extra cash if they can afford a carriage house.

    What’s driving housing unaffordability in Virginia and the nation is the cost of land. And to a lesser degree, the cost of labor. This mandatory upzoning will simply increase the value (and cost) of land. Which will, unfortunately, lead to less affordable housing statewide.

    That’s the problem with leftists like Samirah. They are viewing this through an SJW lens (suburbs = racists), therefore, let’s upzone suburbia. There is no economic lens applied. Increasing the cost of land (which is the result of nearly every upzoning) decreases housing affordability.

    • Welcome to the blog; I don’t think I have seen your signon name before!

      The issue that you raise that is something that has been niggling on my mind. To a large extent, you are right that the cost of land is a primary driver in the cost of housing. As my late father-in-law was fond of saying, they are not making any more land. A parcel of land is going to cost the same whether one puts a modest home on it or a large expensive one. Because the profit margins are better for the bigger, more expensive homes, that is what developers will go for. The same is probably true for multi-family or attached single family dwellings on that parcel of land, the more luxury touches such as appliances and up-scale finishes that are included, the higher the profit margins.

  4. It’s not racism per se that drives exurban commuting but it IS a desire to have a bigger say in who your neighbors are and how close they are to you.

    Anyone who frequents these pages knows how I feel about race issues so don’t get confused… I still am strongly opposed to racism and policies that promote racist outcomes.

    But when it comes to this issue – unless we are really and truly interested in the facts and realities -we’re tilting at windmills big time.

    Next – let’s call the phrase “affordable housing” a misnomer as well as a phrase that means different things to different people.

    People who commute to the exurbs do so in search of “affordable” housing but it’s a certain kind. They are NOT interested in “affordable” apartments or multi-family detached homes and they are not interested in 50 year old homes in older subdivisions that have evolved into de-facto low-income housing.

    What these folks want is single-family detached with space between them and the adjacent house – and people next door who are a conventional family who are employed and make enough money to pay for the house and their car without the types of things like junk cars or littered yards… sketchy characters hanging around, etc.

    So exurban commuters are driven to the exurbs because it’s harder and harder to find the kind of housing they want – at a price they can afford.

    You can approve zoning or per the proposed bill -let property-owners usurp zoning to build more dense “affordable” housing – but this kind of housing is not going to appeal to people who commute to the exurbs so we have to get back to what “affordable” means for the folks who do not commute to the exurbs and whether or not the folks who are lucky enough to live in a “good” single-family detached subdivision – want it converted to more dense housing that attracts folks who are, for want of a better description – not like them.

    I’m willing to bet that even Jim Bacon can visualize the housing around him turning into more “affordable” rental housing – not a good thing for him –

    and THAT’s the DYNAMIC that is a key part of this conundrum.

    Building more dense with lower “down-scale” housing is going to attract folks with lower incomes – and while some of them are fine people – others are not… this is the same problem that we have when we build “projects” for low-income folks. They also attract unsavory types who ruin it for everyone… and people who live in upscale housing including conventional single-family detached housing in the middle of NOVA do not want those folks living near them.

    Not racism – not even classism… not sure what to call it – but I know it when I see it. As a young man, I did live in a variety of low income housing and it became crystal clear that while neighbors were nice people there were also scum around… and it convinced me I did not want to live in that kind of circumstances and when I improved my financial condition – I left that circumstance never to return to it.

    So – removing restrictive zoning or letting property owners build more dense without local govt approval is NOT going to help this – at all.

    That’s why I have asked over and over – what specific things should be made less restrictive – and what urban areas have done this and as a result actually demonstrate more affordable housing.

    Call me a heavy skeptic and again – if we REALLY want to try to fix this problem – we have to be willing to look at the realities of why.

  5. Delegate Samirah seems superficial to me. Setting aside his Corey Stewart-like rhetoric, I doubt he can answer reasonable questions about his proposal. How does he address Asian-Americans? Are they “white for the purpose of racial rhetoric”? How does he address Indian-Americans and Middle Eastern Americans, who scientists have categorized as Caucasians for centuries? Or is Samirah just an anti-European racist?

    How does he address the impact on other landowners when a neighborhood’s density is increased substantially in ways that effect the adequacy of public facilities? I guess its racist to be concerned about traffic, on-street parking, school capacity, parks, libraries, police, fire, EMTs, utilities and so on. But then how do Asians, Indians and Middle Eastern ancestry residents fit when they complain about a negative impact on their lives? Fairfax County, for example, already lacks adequate public facilities to serve the population it has. The quality of life in the county is on a descending path and has been for years. Ten years ago, I didn’t see a parade of Maryland vehicles racing down my 3-foot-wide residential street with parking on both sides. That’s courtesy of Tysons’ “Smart Growth” and apps like Waze and Google.

    What is the impact on real estate taxes? Fairfax County officials have for decades the fact that the overwhelming number of county residents don’t pay sufficient real estate taxes to cover the costs of the services they consume, most especially when they have children in public schools. Moreover, those very same officials have justified higher levels of spending and related taxes to the fact that lower-income residents generally consume more services than residents with higher incomes.

    Higher spending means higher real estate taxes, which, in turn, pushes up the cost of homeownership and rents. At what point, does a denser county become even more expensive in ways that exclude more lower-income people? How about retirees on fixed incomes?

    How does Samirah explain the fact that the feds, state and Fairfax County spend more money per student in schools with low-income student than they do in other schools? How does he explain the higher class sizes in higher income public schools?

    How does he explain that Fairfax County is nearing the status of a majority minority jurisdiction and that many of these single family homes are owned by people whose ancestors weren’t born in Europe?

    But I guess we need to expect this type of garbage in a state where the Governor won’t tell the truth about his racist behavior and uses public money and power in lieu of personal amends.

  6. I read the bill text and have a bunch of questions. This would be the first bill of its kind to apply to an entire state, as the one in Oregon only applies to urban areas.

    This bill applies to all single family zoning, including in frankly rural areas. It’s not clear if it would also apply to agricultural zoning that only allows single family homes. The bill wording suggests yes to me, although I’d appreciate other opinions.

    Most of the acreage this applies to are in places that don’t have county water. Exurban density limits are generally driven by the availability of ground water and the requirements for spacing private septic systems from wells. The bill doesn’t really appear to allow those considerations. It mentions environmental, but I’m not sure that dry wells are really considered an environmental issue. At the state level they are regulated under VDH, IIRC.

    I am not sure how comfortable I am with moving these decisions to the state level. I don’t have huge philosophical objections to duplexes or ADUs, but I’m not a fan of dry wells or E. coli in my water.

  7. In Mr. Samirah’s 86th District you will find thousands upon thousands of examples of “people of color” living in fine single family homes, McMansions, and deluxe townhouses. This guy loves to stir up the pot. Mr. Samirah would be wise to avoid the term “people of color”. Many South Asians live here and that term is detested by them. Perhaps it would be best to let market forces work their magic. There is a reason why I don’t live in the ritzy Great Falls zip code. I am a school teacher and I didn’t win the lottery. So I settled where I could afford to buy in Warrenton.

  8. This is not about races of people and racism. In exurbia – subdivisions of single family houses on 1/4 acre lots – have water and sewer – not wells and septic.

    They also usually have things like paved streets, curbs, storm water facilities, underground utilities including cable.

    This is pretty much true for both Stafford and Spotsylvania – two exurban counties with large numbers of NoVa commuters.

    These folks are NOT looking JUST for “affordable” housing – they’re looking for single family detached in a subdivision near a neighborhood school and with water/sewer/cable and nearby shopping – and of course I-95.

    They have absolutely no interest in living in “nice” , “affordable” dense apartments, condos, or town houses … they want single-family detached in a “nice” neighborhood with a good neighborhood school – something that costs north of 800K in most of NoVa.

    You won’t convince them to not commuter to exurbia with “nice” apartments or townhouses, etc.

    So, having the State “force” the locality to allow denser development has, as they say, “issues”.

    Finally, what are the actual physical symptoms of a place like NoVa that is said to have not enough affordable housing… how is that condition seen? What do we see that is the symptom of the problem?

    • I know that many larger lot exurban subdivisions are on well and septic in central Virginia, and at least some in the DC commuter corridor. Those are different from the type of subdivisions you’re describing, though. However, they are affected by the proposed law.

      Looking at the Spotsy county docs, they don’t have coverage in the entire county, but I am not confident in how their household count translates back into population, and I don’t want to just guess.

      • The most sought-after subdivisions in Spotsylvania are those with water and sewer simply because most NoVa folks who move here don’t want well/septic. They want city-type services.

        • I don’t know about sought after, but I’ve had friends on large lot subdivisions in Spotsy and Stafford since the early eighties. Typically these are well to do people with horses.

          The services aren’t terribly different from the rest of the county.

    • Adding that apparently a significant number of Stafford subdivisions have private well and septic as per this discussion from a couple of years ago. http://bos.stafford.va.us/2017/02212017/24.pdf

      • Both Spotsylvania and Stafford have rural areas with well/septic but in both counties – the development nearer to I-95 is typically water/sewer and as I said up-thread – the vast majority of NovA folks that move to these two counties – they want water/sewer and schools that are not rural – schools that cater to kids of College-educated parents.

        THere are rural well/septic , -yes – but the vast majority of the development is water/sewer of development that is near to I-95.

        NoVa folks – most of them don’t really want to live “rural” and they don’t want their kids going to rural schools and they want a full-feature food store nearby… restaurants, etc…

        below is a typical type development in Spotsylvania and Stafford these days:

        the people who move here – cannot find that kind of housing in NoVa for less than 800K or so… in Spotsylvania it’s 300-400K and “affordable” but it’s nothing like what folks call “affordable” in NoVa.

        All I’m suggesting is that we recognize the reality of what “affordable” really means to different folks and not confuse it with what folks in NoVa (and Richmond) are calling “dense” and “affordable”. The’re totally different critters.

        The folks that move to Spotsylvania and Stafford want no part of what folks call “affordable” in NoVa.

        • IIRC, the schools, libraries, shopping, and services are the same. Broadband coverage is variable, but you definitely have broadband in well and septic subdivisions. It’s more a matter of subdivision age and also lot size.

          The maintenance on well and septic is pretty minimal, typically pumping every three years or so.

  9. Neither Spotsylvania nor Stafford want rural subdivisions on well and septic. The roads are 30’s era Byrd roads – narrow, hilly and no shoulders… and the developers often cut a substandard road in then tried to get VDOT to take it over.

    Both Spotsylvania and Stafford have designated what they called Urban Services districts or primary settlement districts where they provide – no only water and sewer but things like broadband, non-rural schools, libraries, fire & rescue… etc. The rural areas just don’t have the services.

    Some folks want to move there anyhow but many who do don’t realize they are really out beyond the services they took for granted when they lived in NoVa.. I’ve been to their houses and some of them believe the well head in their yard is city water! Some are just plain clueless and just expect whatever they had in NoVa to be in the rural areas.

    But again – the important thing here is to understand WHY NoVa people move to Stafford and Spotsylvania in the first place. It’s primarily for “affordable” housing.

    • Things may be different in Spotsylvania and Stafford, but where I live, there is no public water or sewer but there is broadband, libraries, fire and rescue, grocery stores, etc. It’s just that I might have to drive an additional 5 miles or so to get the grocery store, library, etc. which is no problem since we even have electricity out here and so I can charge my electric car and use that for the trip.

      Also because we have electricity here, I don’t have to go outside and pump the water out of the ground. All I do is turn on a faucet and a variable-speed pump deep in the earth turns on, adjusting it’s speed to maintain constant water pressure.

      Another nice feature of having electricity is that you don’t need an outhouse anymore…and even if the soil doesn’t perc, you can use an advanced treatment septic system that puts out water so clean you could use it to water your lawn via drip irrigation.

    • Both have multiple subdivisions on well and septic and have had for decades, primarily older or larger lot subdivisions.

      The services and amenities are pretty much the same. The primary difference is broadband, and that’s not a one to one correlation with county water or property value, but rather proximity to other customers.

      If you go to Realtor.com, one of the seven figure houses for sale on River Road in Spotsy is listed as having septic.

  10. You should see I66 far out to the west near Front Royal. Early morning and late evenings this highway is a packed race track. People are rolling at 90 miles an hour from Winchester, Strausburg, Luray, Elkton, Madison, Rappahannock, and Culpepper. All sorts of workers making this ride from tradesmen to IT and government work. They commute long distances, work hard, and come home to a nice house with a new pickup truck in the driveway. The American Dream, people will go to great lengths to achieve this.

    • johnrandolphofroanoke,

      This is another example of “what everyone else on this blog obviously does now fully understand and appreciate.” Because if they did, we would have heard your comment expressed widely and plainly on this blog over the past 8 years, just like we heard this comment so widely and plainly expressed with regard to the I-495 (Capital Beltway), and I-95 from Fredericksburg to DC.

      Why the difference?

      Why the “what everyone else on this blog obviously does now fully understand and appreciate?”

      There are many reasons for our common, widespread and gross ignorance, and group think.

      For only one, few here have experienced what you have experienced. And what MOM has experienced, either. This makes your and his comments particularly valuable. They add whole new dimensions and insights into our conversation. They also break up our growing or hardened group think on this blog, as well as it terrible and growing presence throughout our society at large.

      This group think, and its suffocating lack of imagination, is a horrible plague on our society today. It’s one main reason why rural, and small town and city, Virginia, was forgotten about for decades, demeaned and under appreciated and belittled, for so long here on the blog, in Virginia generally, and nationally too. It is shocking that so many were ignorant of what was going on in this country until 2016, and still don’t have a clue.

      For example, this is why Uva.’s demographers for so long wrote about major new trends in Virginia, and overlooked most of the state. This did enormous harm to the outlying areas, from which thank goodness they are now beginning to recover, thanks largely to some exceptional leaders in government and locally that now are rising up into view, taking control, changing a stagnant and dying past into a vibrant future. The challenges are great, but the people involved can only see and appreciate them and meet them with success by seeing opportunities then having hope and firm conviction. That that is happening, and growing strong.

      For example, all those determined long road commuters fiercely determined to live the American Dream, how better off we and they would be without their need to make that long commute. So, for instance, how do we reduce their commutes to five minutes or 2o minutes, and still preserve their American dream at the home where they now live?

      • Sorry for the needed correction to above comment, namely the dual insertion of key word “NOT”:

        “This is another example of “what everyone else on this blog obviously does NOT now fully understand and appreciate.” Because if they did, we would have heard your comment expressed widely and plainly on this blog over the past 8 years, just like we heard this comment so widely and plainly expressed with regard to the I-495 (Capital Beltway), and I-95 from Fredericksburg to DC.

        Why the difference?

        Why the “what everyone else on this blog obviously does NOT now fully understand and appreciate?”

  11. I do not dispute that people commute to exurbia to where there is no water and sewer – but in numbers they are small compared to the vast majority that commute to homes that do have water/sewer AND it’s where Stafford and Spotsylvania will more likely approve denser zoning for undeveloped land – but water/sewer available. They will approve rural residential also but at much lower densities. The health dept plays a significant role – and it’s pretty much not possible to build 4 residential units per acre without water/sewer.

    Roads in rural Stafford and Spotsy are Byrd era two-lane roads often without shoulders – the ditch right next to the asphalt.

    I’m not knocking rural residential .. I live on a large lot by choice but I have 30-50 neighbors within a mile whereas closer in where subdivisions with water/sewer are built there are hundreds of homes stacked about 4 per acre. 640 acres per square mile – do the math.

    A single family house on 1/4 acre in NoVa costs 800K and up – in Stafford and Spotsy that same house is 300-400K where there is water/sewer and further out rural – with well/septic – it’s even less.

    And yes, we have folks in rural Spotsylvania (and Orange and Caroline) that drive 30 minutes just to get on I-95 or VRE and another 50 miles to go to their jobs.

    And what this demonstrates is that what exurban folks call “affordable” is not the same thing that NoVa folks and the GA are called “affordable housing” in NoVA itself.

    It’s the cost of land that drives housing prices and undeveloped land in NoVa is a scarce commodity and very expensive whereas undeveloped land in Stafford and Spotsy – even land served by water/sewer far less costly. Let’s further point out that every developer in Stafford and Spotsy tries to get as many units per acre as they possibly can and it used to be a significant bargaining issue for infrastructure – schools, fire/rescue, libraries, roads.. before Richmond screwed around with it.

    Whatever NoVa and/or Richmond does – it won’t change the reason why there are exurban commuters.

    • In the early eighties, I had a friend in Spotsylvania who commuted to downtown DC, leaving at 4 am, specifically so she could raise horses. I had multiple other horse owning friends there who worked in DC, with slightly better commutes, and others who worked at Quantico. Not claiming it’s the most common reason to live further out, but it’s not rare to specifically want a more rural lifestyle.

      A lot of people in the exurbs actually want to be able to have horses, big gardens, a hobby farm, or whatever. If the person on county water gets a duplex next door, they’re annoyed. If I get too many neighbors and the ground water is contaminated or the water table drops, I have no water for my house, I can’t water my animals, and my teeny little farm is out of luck.

      The numbers may be smaller but the impact is more devastating.

  12. I’ve been receiving emails from some of my good friends who are Democrats, freaking out about this bill. I replied the left-wingers are in charge and Northam will sign virtually anything as part of his quest for racial redemption on the citizens’ dime.

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