Will ‘Missing Middle’ Housing Fix Arlington’s Affordability Problem?

The county's controversial new zoning ordinance has residents at odds. Some say it's a step in the right direction. Others worry it could backfire.
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‘Missing middle’ options like this duplex in Ballston/Virginia Square represent only 6% of the housing stock in Arlington, Virginia. The county’s Expanded Housing Options (EHO) zoning ordinance seeks to change that. (Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development)

Born and raised in Falls Church, Summer Jones always thought her kids would grow up in Northern Virginia, too. Like so many others, she and her husband, Jesse, have long appreciated the area’s walkable neighborhoods, beautiful parks, great schools and proximity to Washington, D.C. Which explains why they rented in Arlington for 10 years, first in Westover and then Columbia Forest. 

But when they decided to finally buy a home, the couple—she’s a training specialist for a nonprofit; he works in operations for a national bank—found even the most modest homes in Arlington out of reach, despite having a combined annual income of more than $130,000. They could have shouldered the mortgage payments, Jones says, but child care costs had chipped away at the savings they needed for a 20% down payment. In 2021, they moved with their three kids to Chesterfield County, outside of Richmond, where they were able to buy a 3,000-square-foot, newly built home for $420,000.

“It feels really frustrating…embarrassing sometimes,” Jones says. “[Arlington] is a place we love so much and genuinely wanted to be there. Two people with a decent income, but we couldn’t buy a home.”

As of December, the average four-bedroom home in Arlington was $1.48 million, according to the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors. A comparably sized home in the Richmond area was priced at about $300,000 on Redfin. 

The Joneses aren’t alone in their search for more affordable pastures. Skyrocketing home prices and the shift to remote work have prompted an exodus of buyers abandoning major metro areas for smaller markets. From 2018 to 2021, the median distance homebuyers were willing to move was 15 miles. In 2022, it was 50 miles—the highest number ever recorded—according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). 

Others are putting the dream of homeownership on hold and continuing to rent. In 2022, the number of first-time homebuyers nationwide shrank to a record low, accounting for 26% of all buyers (down from 34% in 2021 and a peak of 50% in 2010). The average age of a first-time buyer hit an all-time high of 36.

As of December, the average four-bedroom home in Arlington was $1.48 million.

For Summer and Jesse Jones, who are both 41, home equity (or rather the lack of it) was a barrier in Arlington. Both became financially independent at 18 and paid their own way through college, taking out student loans. Their parents always rented. There was no family money to help them buy a starter home.

“I think people who don’t find themselves in this situation don’t understand,” Jones says. “They think, ‘Oh, well, they’re just lazy. They’re just spending all their money and they’re not trying to save.’ But when you have student debt, when you have three kids and child care—at the end of the month there isn’t much to save to put toward the [purchase of a] house.”

“You’re competing with people that are investors … with people that have generational wealth, all cash offers. It becomes unattainable for most middle-class and upper-middle-class people.”

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A triplex in Halls Hill/Highview Park, Arlington, Virginia (Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development)

Entry-level homes are hard to find in Arlington. Much of the county’s once-plentiful postwar housing stock of small ramblers and modest Colonials has been torn down and replaced with large luxury homes that are out of reach for first-time and even move-up buyers, including many with graduate degrees and six-figure incomes.  

Aware of this problem, county planners in 2019 launched a study to explore whether a greater diversity of housing types—such as duplexes, triplexes, row houses and small multifamily buildings—might fill the so-called “missing middle” in the housing landscape and make Arlington more affordable.

The study, and the subsequent Missing Middle proposal—now referred to as Expanded Housing Options (EHO)—released last year, triggered a maelstrom of controversy in the community. Hundreds of residents flocked to public hearings, making impassioned cases for or against the plan. At issue were zoning changes that would clear the way for denser housing types in neighborhoods that had previously been limited to single-family homes. 

Out of Reach

Escalating home prices have made it increasingly harder for middle-income buyers to afford homes in Arlington.

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Source: Bright MLS and ShowingTime for Arlington Magazine’s Expanded Real Estate Guide, March 2023

Single-family homes account for about a quarter of Arlington’s housing stock but occupy 79% of the county’s residential land. The Expanded Housing Options (EHO) plan aims to add more “missing middle” dwellings such as duplexes, triplexes and low-rise buildings containing up to six units.

Critics of the plan contended that so-called “upzoning” would adversely affect the character of certain neighborhoods by increasing building density, bringing more cars to already busy streets and overcrowding schools, while not having the intended effect of providing housing that is actually affordable for middle-income buyers. 

Supporters saw the move as a step in the right direction toward building a more economically and culturally diverse community, with more housing options for people of different income levels and in different stages of life.

As rowdy debates pitted neighbor against neighbor and competing lawn signs popped up all over town, others were quietly grappling with a tough decision: Stay and scrape by, abandon the dream of homeownership, or go. 

Kelly Garrity and her husband, Jim, decided to go. In August of 2022, they sold their town house in Arlington’s Courtbridge neighborhood and relocated with their two kids to a suburb outside Raleigh, North Carolina—where, for only $50,000 more than the sale price of their town house, they doubled their square footage. 

“It made us really think about whether staying in NOVA was the right choice. We would have had to double our housing costs in order to get out of our two-bedroom town house and into a three-bedroom town house [in Arlington],” says Garrity, who runs an Arlington-based nonprofit. Now she works remotely and travels back and forth for work around once a month. Her husband is in business development for a large government contractor. 

“It’s honestly so hard,” she says. “We knew families who lived in 1,500-square-foot units in Fairlington with four kids because they couldn’t afford anything else.” 

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Melissa Guillen and her son, Lucas, in front of their condo building in Arlington (Photo by Michael Ventura)

Melissa Guillen can relate. She’s lived in Arlington since high school. Her husband was born and raised here. Both have master’s degrees, and together they earn more than $230,000 a year. They’d love to buy a single-family home near Courthouse, where they’ve been living for decades, but with average home prices topping $1 million in Orange Line-adjacent neighborhoods, they can’t swing it. The $6,000 to $7,000 monthly mortgage payments become unmanageable once they add in groceries, child care for their 3-year-old and other expenses. 

Guillen finds local market conditions exasperating. “You’re competing with people that are investors,” she says. “You’re competing with people that have generational wealth, all cash offers. It becomes unattainable for most middle-class and upper-middle-class people.” 

Gaining a leg up is even harder if you are a minority, adds Guillen, who is Latinx, as is her husband.

The numbers bear this out. Last year, White Americans accounted for 59% of the U.S. population and 88% of homebuyers nationwide, while Hispanics represented 19% of the population but only 8% of homebuyers. African Americans comprised 13.6% of the population but a mere 3% of buyers. Asian Americans made up roughly 7% of the population and 2% of buyers. 

Though housing discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed in 1968, price inflation “has become another way of keeping minorities out of neighborhoods,” Guillen says. “We’re being pushed to other areas [in a way that] feels very segregational.”

“You’re competing with people that have generational wealth, all cash offers.”

Iris Gibson is a teacher at Arlington’s Langston High School Continuation Program. Her husband is a professor at George Mason University. She says they were only barely able to afford a small home in Fairlington, and that was with family members lending them money for the down payment. 

“When a high school teacher and a university professor cannot afford a condo without a family loan, then you are truly moving towards an upper-income-only community,” Gibson says. 

It’s scenarios like this that led the county board in late March to unanimously approve the Expanded Housing Options plan, amending Arlington’s zoning rules to allow more and different kinds of housing. The changes are scheduled to take effect July 1.

With the change, builders will be allowed to construct townhomes, duplexes, triplexes and other small buildings of up to six units per lot in neighborhoods that were previously restricted to single-family homes. 

There are certain parameters. Multi-unit buildings will have to adhere to the same building height, setbacks and size limits currently allowed for single-family homes. The new zoning ordinance also comes with a temporary cap of 58 EHO permits countywide per year, for the first five years—a rollout that county planners anticipate will result in 94 to 108 new housing units annually. 

The EHO plan also mandates the planting of shade trees on multi-unit lots, and requires on-site parking spots based on proximity to transit. 

One goal, says Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey, is for fewer residents to become displaced.

“On a human level, it’s not great when people who want to be a part of a community are forced to go elsewhere,” he says. “All of those familial and social connections get broken.” 

Dorsey also worries about the environmental impact when those who can’t find housing nearby are forced to commute long distances to work (although the shift to remote work has made this less of an issue for certain kinds of jobs). He points to walkable neighborhoods like Westover—where single-family homes are tucked behind the duplexes and small apartment buildings that line Washington Boulevard—as a positive example of how missing-middle housing can improve a neighborhood. 

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Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey (Courtesy photo)

Missing Middle opponents, meanwhile, remain worried about the impact of denser development. Peter Rousselot, a founding member of the advocacy group Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF), says the county should have done more baseline studies to gauge the proposal’s likely effects on infrastructure, stormwater management, schools and parks. He says neighboring jurisdictions, including Falls Church City, Fairfax County and Loudoun County, have all commissioned similar impact studies.

Early drafts of Arlington’s Missing Middle proposal in 2019 were far different from the measure that passed in March. Originally, the plan was to introduce missing-middle housing along the county’s three busiest “planning corridors”—Rosslyn-Ballston, Richmond Highway and Columbia Pike. Those corridors are home to 53% of county residents and make up 22% of county land, according to the Arlington Department of Community Planning. 

Rousselot thinks the revised plan is too broad and argues that it should have been piloted in those areas first. “The plan has morphed into something completely countywide that enables multiunit buildings far, far away from transit and other things that would help make it work,” he says. “I don’t think it’s good public policy to move forward on a plan like this when there’s this degree of opposition to it.”

Julie Lee, a founding member of the citizens group Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency (AFUT), agrees. She fears the Missing Middle/EHO framework puts too much power in the hands of developers and could lead to even more teardowns of smaller, older, more affordable homes—with all of the financial benefits going to builders and landlords. 

“A developer can come in and buy those lots, tear down that starter home, and on that lot build a duplex and sell each half of it for $1.5 million. I don’t see how that’s better.”

“This is a free-market plan that’s going forward,” says Lee, who also serves as president of the Glencarlyn Civic Association. She worries developers will snap up lower-cost homes such as the ones she sees being bought and sold in her own neighborhood south of Route 50, where some still sell in the upper $500,000s to $800,000s.

“Their job is to maximize profits,” Lee says. “A developer can come in and buy those lots, tear down that starter home, and on that lot build a duplex and sell each half of it for $1.5 million. I don’t see how that’s better.”

Critics have also expressed concerns that missing-middle construction will result in the loss of mature trees, thereby increasing stormwater runoff and flooding, and that the influx of new residents will exacerbate traffic congestion and school crowding. Rousselot says the sheer number of people who turned out for public comment is evidence the decision should have been put back in the hands of voters. He says the board could have put the issue on the general election ballot in 2023.

The zoning changes on the horizon are an example of  “ideologically-driven poor planning,” he said in an official ASF statement after the county board voted to move ahead. “This county board has plopped a half-baked cake on the table that Arlington residents must now eat.”

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Peter Rousselot outside his condo building in Virginia Square (Photo by Michael Ventura)

Supporters of the EHO plan, meanwhile, envision a future Arlington that is denser, more welcoming and more diverse. They say multifamily housing adds much-needed inventory, and the time to take action is now.  

“Income levels are correlated, unfortunately, with race, and so when we have more income levels that can afford a neighborhood, you’re going to have a more diverse neighborhood,” says Jane Green, president of YIMBYS (Yes in My Backyard) of Northern Virginia. Green is a renter in the Courthouse area. 

“The only thing that helps us get more units at a lower price is to build more supply. We’ve had decades where that [type of housing] has been sort of systematically restricted,” Green says, referencing Arlington’s moratorium on townhomes and other attached housing types, which started in 1938 and lasted until 1965. Around the same time, the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages for homes located in or near African American communities such as Green Valley and Halls Hill, in a practice known as “redlining.” (So named for the red outlines that labeled certain neighborhoods as “hazardous” on the federal Home Owners’ Land Corp. maps of the 1930s.) As a result, many Black families were unable to get a mortgage. 

Though the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was meant to end these discriminatory practices, the damage was done. Decades of exclusionary housing policies made it harder for Black and brown residents to own homes and prevented the accumulation of wealth through generations. 

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A low-rise residential building in Westover (Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development)

Today, most of Arlington’s single-family neighborhoods are more than 70% White, according to county data. (White people represent 58.5% of the county population, but some would argue the reason Arlington is predominantly White is because fewer people of color can afford to live here.)

“We believe that expanded housing means expanding the opportunities for people of color, lower-income folks and people traditionally left out of the power dynamics that have been in place across the country, not just solely Arlington County,” says Bryan Coleman, second vice president and Housing Committee chair for the NAACP Arlington Chapter.

Critics of the county plan note that the projected costs of the new Missing Middle units still miss the mark for African American buyers. The county has said the new housing types will be affordable to households with an income between $108,000 and $200,000. The median household income of Black residents in Arlington is around $67,000, according to county data. 

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A duplex in Arlington Heights (Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development)

Coleman, who rents in Courthouse and is himself struggling to buy, nevertheless views the plan as a start. 

“It’s not simply about homeownership, although that is important,” he says. “It takes multiple rungs to reach this goal, and we need to have rungs people can climb. As one person takes a step up, a person beneath them takes a step up. If we don’t establish that pathway upward, there’s stagnation and those at the top maintain their relative domain of exclusivity.”  

County Board Chair Dorsey urges patience. “Changing exclusionary zoning doesn’t mean that you have more diverse neighborhoods overnight,” he says. “The imposition of exclusionary zoning did not create a condition overnight [either]. It happened over time. But in order to reverse that, you have to begin. If you do not allow the opportunity for more homes to exist in neighborhoods, then how in the world can those neighborhoods become more diverse? It just can’t happen.” 

Green, the president of YIMBYS of Northern Virginia, agrees. “We’re not immediately going to get back to a situation where you could buy a duplex for $400,000,” she says. “We lost that inventory for decades. We need to let that inventory come back into the market. And new housing is always going to be more expensive than older housing.”

Arlington’s Housing Mix

“Missing middle” options such as duplexes, townhomes and low-rise buildings currently represent 6% of Arlington’s housing stock.

Building Type Chart

Source: Arlington County Housing Market Pressures Report

Presently, about 70% of Arlington’s housing stock is mid- and high-rise multifamily condos and apartments—most of which are located along transit corridors. Single-family detached homes represent 24% of inventory but occupy most of the county’s residential land. Duplexes and town houses account for only about 6%, according to county data.

Why aren’t there more of them? 

For decades, one major roadblock was zoning restrictions limiting where multifamily dwellings could be built—which the county’s Expanded Housing Options plan has now lifted.

But there’s also the matter of basic economics, says David Tracy, president of Classic Cottages, a custom homebuilding company based in Alexandria that does a lot of business in Arlington. It doesn’t make financial sense to put a low-cost home on pricey land. And land costs in Arlington are exorbitant.

“There’s a relationship between the price of the lot, the cost of construction and the overall sales price,” Tracy explains. Lot prices in Arlington can run as high as $800,000 to $1 million or more for less than a quarter acre. Add in permits, fees and the cost of financing a project—especially as interest rates rise—and affordability goes out the window. 

Classic Cottages builds plenty of large luxury homes. (At press time, a 5,600-square foot spec home in Lyon Park was listed at $2.35 million.) But two years ago, the company introduced its Midtown Collection, a line of “smaller” homes ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, on smaller lots. Prices for these smaller homes vary by neighborhood, but lately have ranged from about $1.75 million to $1.95 million.  

“Same quality materials, same quality construction—just physically smaller,” Tracy says of the plans, which slim down by eliminating features like walk-in pantries, mudrooms and extra bedrooms. “Those have allowed us to hit lower price points…and have been fairly well received in the market.”

The first Midtown Collection model was built in 2020. Now, of the 30 or so homes the company builds each year, about 10 are from that smaller plan portfolio.

Tracy says the county’s EHO plan does incentivize builders to work with new segments of the market. But it could also inadvertently inflate land values even further. Zoning changes that loosen restrictions and allow a more flexible array of uses could make certain lots even more desirable to developers.    

Arlington’s big-home takeover has been underway for some time. The decade from 2009 to 2019 saw 1,245 older single-family homes torn down (about 125 per year), according to the county’s 2020 Housing Market Pressures report, and another 1,029 homes substantially renovated with major additions. Combined, those transformations represented about 8% of the county’s estimated 28,500 single-family homes. The average size of a teardown house was 1,515 square feet with three bedrooms. The average new build was more than triple that size, averaging 4,750 square feet. 

The Teardown Trend

Arlington’s supply of modest postwar housing has dwindled over time as older homes have been razed and replaced by dramatically larger ones.

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(Source: Arlington County Housing Market Pressures Report, citing 2019 data *Estimate is based on the average sale price for a two- or three-bedroom Arlington home in 2019)

Interestingly, opposition to so-called “McMansions” is one topic on which feuding factions have found common ground. Missing Middle detractors say the county should take action to curb the proliferation of oversize houses before allowing multi-unit buildings in lower-density neighborhoods. Missing Middle advocates point to the size of new luxury homes (which tend to max out a lot’s buildable envelope) as a case for building multifamily dwellings instead. 

All of this is happening as the housing market softens for the first time in nearly a decade. Spring selling kicked off with mortgage interest rates hovering around 6% and not a lot of inventory.

The ball is slowly moving into the buyer’s court, says Amy Harasz, executive vice president at real estate brokerage Compass. She says she’s seen area buyers scoring price reductions and seller concessions not seen in years: “You’re able to actually have a home inspection, maybe get the seller to make some repairs or perhaps give you a credit for items that come up in the inspection.” 

The downside for buyers is that higher interest rates also mean higher monthly payments. The Federal Reserve hiked interest rates 0.25% in February and another 0.25% in March to tame inflation in the wake of the banking turmoil. 

“That’s going to really impact buyers who are barely qualifying from a debt-to-income ratio perspective,” Harasz says, whereas wealthier buyers shopping in the million-dollar range “might not like having a higher interest rate…but they’re still going to be able to qualify.” 

Harasz works with a lot of first-time homebuyers in the area, and yet her average sale last year was around $1 million. She says she’s seeing entry-level buyers opting for homes that are smaller and may not fit their needs for very long—or shifting their search to more affordable areas—just to get a toehold on homeownership. 

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Townhomes in East Falls Church (Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development)

Alex Goyette and his family might have stayed in Arlington had there been more options back when they were house hunting in 2020. “My wife and I lived in Arlington for several years, but when we were ready to take the plunge into homeownership, we couldn’t find anything in our price range in the county,” says Goyette, who works in public policy for a small nonprofit. His wife is a physician assistant at Inova Children’s Hospital. 

“We hoped we could find a small duplex or town house or something. It didn’t take much time to realize that those options don’t really exist in Arlington.” They ended up buying a duplex in Alexandria.

Rising housing costs similarly compelled Eric Gibble and his husband to leave Arlington three years ago. “We did look, but realized the prices were too high when other areas in the DMV had more space for lower prices,” says Gibble, who works at VHC Health. They ended up buying a home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and now commute to work by car every day—Gibble to Arlington, his husband to D.C.

County Board Chair Dorsey concedes that the EHO plan isn’t perfect, but says it’s a good first step. “We’ve heard from a lot of people who are in opposition who say, well, even if you do this, it’s not like the products that are built are going to be really affordable,” he says. “Right now in Arlington, we have a lot of new-construction homes trading for about $2 million on the market. If the products that come online through the zoning [reform] are less than that, then it absolutely will enable more people to have an opportunity. And that’s exactly what ending exclusionary zoning is intended to do—to provide more opportunities for people who are otherwise shut [out].”

It’s been two years since Summer Jones and her family decamped to Richmond. The move is a decision they now regret. They miss Arlington and wish they could move back, but even with the equity from their new home, they’re not sure it’s a possibility. 

“This [house] was something attainable to us,” Jones says. “We jumped right in without thinking. It was just so enticing, you know? But we’re also genuinely grieving that we [left]—this community in this place that we love so much.”

Helen Partridge is a writer based in Arlington Ridge. She and her husband, James, got into the housing market by buying a major fixer-upper off market.

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Illustration by James Heimer

New Rules

On March 22, 2023, the Arlington County board voted unanimously to amend the county’s zoning ordinance and general land use plan to allow higher-density homes (“expanded housing options,” or EHO) in neighborhoods previously restricted to single-family homes. Some highlights:

  • Allows up to six units on a residential lot (duplexes, town houses or multiplexes with three to six units)
  • Sets a cap of 58 EHO building permits per year for the first five years
  • Includes parking requirements that vary based on proximity to Metrorail
  • Requires a minimum of four shade trees for buildings of two to four units; eight shade trees for five to six units
  • Sets limitations on square footage, depending on the building type (for example, 4,800 square feet max for a duplex; 7,200 square feet max for a fourplex)
  • Allows accessory dwellings (ADs) in only two scenarios: as interior units within a town house or a semidetached home

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