Here’s What’s Missing From Arlington’s Missing Middle Plan

With a few modifications, Arlington's new housing plan could become another national model, just as its Metro corridors did half a century ago.
Ballston Arlington Virginia Aerial #0662012421 Lkg Nw

An aerial view of Arlington’s Metro Orange Line corridor. (Photo by Duane Lempke on Wikimedia Commons)

The following is an opinion piece. The views do not necessarily reflect those of Arlington Magazine. 

More than a half century ago, Arlington County demonstrated national leadership by encouraging high-density commercial and residential development along its Metro corridors, which required height tapering into adjacent single-family neighborhoods.

Now we are facing another major development decision that could prove just as transformative. The current discussion surrounding Missing Middle housing in Arlington has become highly controversial, largely because the county board’s recently-passed zoning reform allows increased housing density in single-family neighborhoods all across the county.

The Missing Middle plan seeks to address a concern about which all parties agree: that affordable homeownership opportunities in Arlington have shrunk over time and now fall far short of the demand for such housing. I commend the county board for tackling this important challenge. The central disagreement is whether a blanket countywide approach is the best way to address this issue.

With modifications, Arlington’s Missing Middle plan could become another national model. The logical next step would be to encourage more multifamily, middle-income affordable homes along bus routes and heavily-used secondary roads, and in select single-family neighborhoods adjacent to transit corridors. This would address the acute need for affordable housing for teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and many others who work in the county but can’t afford to own a house here. 

Changing demographics in and around Arlington are one major factor contributing to the limited availability of middle-income affordable units. The shortage of homes in this category is also the result of housing policy and land use planning decisions in Arlington—both positive and negative—over the course of a century.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, thousands of garden apartment units were built, creating homes for those who came to live in the D.C. metropolitan area after the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Another very positive development was the Arlington County government’s decision in the 1960s to concentrate high-rise commercial and residential development along Metro corridors, with building height restrictions that tapered down along the edges where these corridors blended into adjoining neighborhoods.

These development decisions gave couples and families access to middle-income affordable units from the 1950s through the 1980s. Many who started out in those housing units later moved into neighborhoods with larger homes and yards as their economic prospects improved and/or as their families expanded.

But there were also negative elements that contributed to the present-day shortage of affordable homeownership opportunities. Among them were restrictive racial and religious covenants in the first half of the 20th century that traced back to the landmark “separate but equal” Supreme Court decision of Plessy v Ferguson in 1896. Though Arlington citizens helped organize major protests against these policies in the mid-1960s, the remnants of those covenants can still be seen in today’s housing landscape.

Another pivotal factor with lasting repercussions was the county’s decision beginning in the 1970s to provide housing grants to lower-income residents, and to focus housing resources on rental subsidies for low-income residents. While these policies were critical in promoting greater diversity, they may have had the unintended effect of limiting homeownership opportunities in Arlington.

The late 1980s saw the establishment of AHOME (Arlington Home Ownership Made Easier), a nonprofit dedicated to expanding homeownership opportunities to low- and middle-income families. This effort arose in response to a housing policy that was primarily geared toward providing rental subsidies to families earning below 60-80% of the local median family income. Very little was being done to promote homeownership for families receiving rental subsidies. Perhaps more importantly, little effort was directed at expanding homeownership opportunities for middle-class buyers, including those who worked in Arlington but couldn’t afford to own a home in Arlington.

The county’s present-day challenge is one that affects many similar communities: Hundreds of homes that were once financially attainable for middle-income move-up buyers are no longer so, and the affordable homes that remain will continue to be replaced or renovated over the next several decades. Without intervention, most will become larger and even more expensive single-family housing. The county’s current Missing Middle plan will not produce nearly enough homes to meet demand for housing that is affordable for middle-income families.

I believe the heated debate over Missing Middle housing represents an opportunity for Arlington to renew its historic leadership in land-use planning. The county can do so by allowing and encouraging greater housing density in various forms, but location is key. The logical approach is to identify extended metro areas along selected bus routes and other heavily used secondary roads that are most appropriate for higher density housing, with building height allowances that taper down where these corridors connect to adjacent single-family neighborhoods. In addition, the initiative might also allow higher density buildings in select single family neighborhoods near transit.

This modified approach could yield hundreds of additional middle-income affordable units. That’s compared with the mere tens of units that might realistically result from the current Missing Middle plan, which sets an annual cap on the number of units allowed. This more desirable outcome requires four steps:

✦ Intensify efforts to identify county sites along bus routes and heavily-used secondary roads that could accommodate multifamily buildings containing two, three or four units, and develop an inventory of these sites. My sense is that hundreds of properties would be suitable for multifamily homeownership along existing transit routes such as Langston Boulevard, Columbia Pike, Arlington Boulevard, George Mason Boulevard and Wilson Boulevard, as well as other well-traveled secondary roads throughout the county. These parcels will be excellent candidates for additional density as part of the evolving community fabric. 

✦ Continue canvassing county residents to determine which neighborhoods would be most accepting of low-rise multifamily buildings. This interactive step would mirror the effort that accompanied the Metro Corridor planning process of the 1970s and 1980s, when county board members, staff and consultants had extensive discussions with individual neighborhoods.

✦ Using the information gained in the two steps above, identify certain bus-extended metro area routes, secondary roads and single-family neighborhoods as prime areas for initial Missing Middle efforts.

✦ Allow duplexes to be built on any county lot that is at least 10,000 square feet, or that exceeds the minimum lot-size requirement by at least 20% for that specific zoning district.  Two-family housing units would still be required to meet standard setback and coverage requirements. Three- or four-family housing units would be allowed only in areas and neighborhoods which meet the criteria in the bullets above.

I believe taking these four steps would allow for an orderly adoption (and subsequent evaluation) of a Missing Middle initiative that could once again put Arlington on the map as a national leader in housing and land-use planning. This would be a far better result than an Arlington that continues to be bogged down by controversy and unlikely to achieve real progress on this important issue.

Art Hauptman is a long-time resident of Arlington. He was co-chair of the Arlington Housing Commission in the 1980s and a founding member of Arlington Home Ownership Made Easier (AHOME), a non-profit which for 30 years sought to expand homeownership opportunities to low- and middle-income families in Arlington and surrounding communities.

Related Stories:

Categories: Community