Zoning is having a moment, and Arlington County joined the party. In response to a severe housing shortage, pro-housing coalitions across the country are coming together to change zoning laws to allow a diversity of housing options. Last month, Arlington County approved Missing Middle Housing thanks to advocacy from a coalition of pro-housing folks including YIMBYs of NoVA, VOICE, NAACP Arlington Branch, and visionary national leadership from Opticos Design. They showed that changing zoning to increase housing supply and diversity is possible, and in the process, set an example that we hope communities across the country will follow.
America is currently facing a housing crisis with a shortage of nearly 7 million housing units, and Euclidean (use-based) Zoning is a major culprit of the crisis. Right now, approximately 75% of America is zoned for single-family housing, severely limiting—and in some cases outright prohibiting—the production of diverse, multi-family housing types. While the Biden-Harris Administration’s Housing Supply Action Plan outlines a suite of incentives to encourage local zoning reform in an effort to combat the housing crisis, these incentives are not enough to encourage housing development at scale. Unfortunately, incentives are the only tool that the Federal Government has in its toolbox right now, as direct zoning interventions are out of the purview of their authority.
With that said, a growing chorus of states and communities have stepped up to remove barriers to adding housing and enact zoning reform, notably in Massachusetts and California, making multifamily and apartments “by-right” and/or eliminating regulatory barriers to multi-family housing development. Arlington County’s Expanding Missing Middle Housing ordinance, adopted on March 22, is a recent example of a community’s commitment to zoning reform and addressing the housing crisis.
Take a moment to hear from some of the important parties that made Missing Middle Housing in Arlington County possible:
Karen Parolek, Opticos Design, Inc.
As it has in other places across the U.S. and abroad since its inception in 2010, Missing Middle Housing provided a way to reframe the conversation in Arlington away from scary ideas like “density” and “upzoning” to instead talk about how to provide more housing and more housing choices in a form and scale that works well in the community. Opening exclusionary single-family zoned neighborhoods to allow similar, house-scale buildings but with more units, such as duplexes and fourplexes, will provide more housing choices and greater attainability in this expensive real estate market so close to major job centers and destinations.
Community members, local non-profit organizations, and staff in Arlington fostered the process in a way to bring more people into the conversation to talk about the need for housing and ways to provide it. While the official planning process lasted three years, these stakeholders, including The Alliance for Housing Solutions, have been talking about Missing Middle Housing since at least 2016, when they invited Opticos Design to give a keynote presentation about Missing Middle Housing as part of a larger housing forum. They took the time to grow understanding about the opportunities Missing Middle Housing provides and built a coalition to support it. That long-term, tactical effort paid off, showing that even in the face of opposition from a vocal minority, stakeholders, planning staff, and decision-makers can work effectively to enable Missing Middle Housing. What an exciting model for others who want to bring more housing, equitable housing options, and housing attainability to their community!
Luca Gattoni-Celli & Jane Green, YIMBYs of Northern Virginia
James Pearlstein & Loren DePina, VOICE
In late February 2023, more than 150 Missing Middle Housing supporters in Arlington braved falling snow at a rally for housing featuring County Board Member Katie Cristol. This event represented the culmination of our grassroots organizing, combining logistics, policy knowledge, and moral authority to demand accessible housing options in Northern Virginia.
After County staff released their Missing Middle framework in April 2022, YIMBYs of Northern Virginia and the Alliance for Housing Solutions analyzed the policy’s key benefits and began building a coalition that would ultimately lead Arlington to adopt Missing Middle Housing.
By late summer 2022, YIMBYs of NoVA came together with the interfaith network VOICE and NAACP Arlington Branch to lead the charge. YIMBYs of NoVA recruited other allies including the local Sierra Club, coordinated strategy across organizations, and turned out its members. To effectively deploy evidence, YIMBYs of NoVA also drafted talking points and held informational sessions to help Arlingtonians feel comfortable voicing their support, despite vitriolic opposition.
VOICE deployed 15 years of organizing expertise to turn out dozens of Arlingtonians to hearings and events, showing its allies how to run a turnout operation and how to give advocacy a sense of fellowship. VOICE also convened an “action” in a church sanctuary to secure two key Arlington County Board members’ commitment of support before a crowd of about 275 people.
The NAACP was indispensable, grounding Arlington’s Missing Middle debate in the historical context of the county and country’s systemically racist housing policies. Its leaders unflinchingly demanded an end to exclusionary zoning.
Together, our coalition encouraged supporters to tell emotionally resonant personal stories about why Missing Middle Housing mattered to them, which turned the tide to secure Missing Middle Housing by making the conversation personal. Their stories put a human face on the real people affected by the housing crisis in Arlington. We made speaking fun and easy, hosting gatherings and providing email and text updates. We out-organized traditionally dominant anti-housing voices, with supportive speakers decisively outnumbering the opposition at most key hearings. Ultimately, we showed that housing is popular.
Bryan Coleman, NAACP Arlington Branch
The approval of Missing Middle Housing is an important first step in addressing the consequences of generations of exclusionary zoning in Arlington County. Even though race-based zoning was ruled unconstitutional in 1917 (Buchanan v. Warley), Arlington found a loophole by banning rowhouses in 1938, which, at the time, primarily housed Black people. This was followed by several successive zoning changes which further segregated the County along racial and economic lines. The recently passed proposal, “Expand Housing Options,” allows for the construction of two to six-plexes to be built across the County with a caveat being that six-plexes can only be built on lots with a minimum of 7,000 square feet. This provides housing opportunities accessible to Black and Brown families in various neighborhoods, particularly in north Arlington, where they were traditionally excluded.
Additionally, this policy creates the foundation to stabilize rent and provides a pathway up the housing marketplace. Of the nearly 60 percent of Arlington residents who are renters, 78 percent are Black, and 73 percent are Latino. By allowing for a variety of housing options to be built in place of single-family homes, and disrupting the vicious cycle of constrained supply chasing high demand, Arlington may start to arrest runaway rent prices. Furthermore, by creating more housing types attainable for upper-middle to middle-income residents, the homes they vacate open up to individuals lower on the economic ladder. This in turn enables more people to access housing in Arlington.
While the adoption of the “Expand Housing Options” proposal is a big win for Arlington, the process is far from over as there are several important administrative steps that must occur before the zoning ordinance becomes final. Regardless of the final outcome, this approval is historic and should serve as a model and a signal for more communities across the country to join the party to update zoning and allow for more diverse housing.
Toccarra Nicole Thomas, AICP, Director Land Use and Development | Executive Director Form-Based Codes Institute, Smart Growth America
Karen Parolek, President & Co-Founder
Bryan Coleman, 2nd Vice President | Housing Committee, Chair
Luca Gattoni-Celli, Chief Executive & Founder
Jane Green, President & Co-Founder
James Pearlstein, Co-Lead Organizer
Loren DePina, Associate Organizer