Arlington County policymakers have issued a call for ideas on improving housing availability and affordability. If you’d like to submit your own ideas, you can do so here through the rest of the day. The ideas that I submitted are below.
Arlington County is a national model for transit-oriented development. Permitting dense, multifamily housing to be built on the County’s transit corridors has contributed to making the Washington, DC region more affordable compared to other high-income coastal regions. Nonetheless, housing prices in Arlington are high and rising due to increasing demand for access to the job market, schools, and other benefits that Arlington offers. County policymakers have opportunities to reform land use regulations to permit both dense multifamily housing and missing middle housing to improve access to Arlington’s opportunities.
Zoning for Transit Oriented Development
Ahead of Metro’s arrival in Arlington, county policymakers adopted the well-known “bulls eye approach” to planning, which calls for dense development surrounding the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor Metro stations. This plan calls for dense development to be permitted within one-quarter mile of these stations. Unfortunately, this plan has never been realized in the zoning ordinance. The County maintains single-family or townhouse zoning within one-quarter mile of four stations on this corridor and a relatively low-density multifamily zone within one-quarter mile of the Rosslyn station. The County needs more townhouses and low-rise multifamily housing, but it also needs more high-rise multifamily housing as the bulls eye plan recognized. Given the high and rising land values and house prices along this corridor, it’s past time to realize this decades-old planning objective.
Further, planning for urban villages around Metro stations should be extended to the area around the East Falls Church station area, where residents of multifamily housing have to walk past land zoned exclusively for single-family houses to reach the station. The Federal Highway Administration finds that pedestrians are willing to walk up to one-half mile to transit stops and considerably farther to heavy rail. The bulls eye plan supports permitted density that gradually tapers off farther than one-quarter mile from Metro stations. But, in many cases, the County’s zoning transitions abruptly from dense multifamily zoning to single-family zoning with substantial minimum lot size requirements.
Zoning for mid-rise, multifamily housing outside the densest zone around all the County’s Orange and Blue Line stations would carry out the 1960s vision and improve housing affordability in Arlington. Permitting new multifamily construction in parts of the county where land is particularly valuable, including on land zoned for single-family or commercial development close to Metro stations, is the policy most likely to preserve existing market-rate affordable units in parts of the county where land is currently less expensive.
Zoning for Missing Middle Development
Arlington has room to improve in zoning for large multifamily developments near transit, but this is an area where Arlington county policymakers have been leaders nationwide. In zoning for missing middle housing, however, Arlington County is lagging behind several jurisdictions that have shown the way to zone for missing middle housing that is economically and politically feasible. Here I use missing middle to mean housing with low-rise construction costs but that requires no more than 2,500 square feet of land per unit. Eliminating single-family zoning to permit more, lower-cost housing across Arlington is a key step policymakers could take to promote housing affordability. Several jurisdictions discussed below provide successful models for permitting missing middle housing.
Houston, famous for its lack of use zoning and policy environment that facilitates new, greenfield development also has a successful model for missing middle housing reform. In 1999 Houston policymakers reduced the minimum lot size for single-family houses from 5,000 square feet down to effectively 1,400 square feet within the city’s I-610 loop. In 2012, they extended this reduced minimum lot size across the entire city. This reduction has resulted in the construction of tens of thousands of townhouses. Prior to the reform, Houston policymakers were granted variances to permit townhouse construction, primarily in low-income parts of the city. But after the reform, as-of-right construction shifted to take place in higher-income parts of the city. Houston’s openness to all types of housing construction has helped it maintain median house prices across the city that are below the national median.
Palisades Park, NJ
Palisades Park in Bergen County, NJ provides another model of facilitating missing middle construction. When Palisades Park policymakers adopted the city’s first zoning ordinance in the 1940s, they implemented two-family zoning rather than single-family zoning with a 5,000 square foot lot size requirement for either one or two units. The borough was developed with primarily single-family houses through the 1960s like its suburban neighbors. However, as land prices have increased, many of these single-family houses have been replaced with duplexes, accommodating nearly a doubling of population through infill construction. Relative to its neighboring jurisdictions, land prices in Palisades Park are higher, reflecting the option landowners have to build two units per lot rather than one.
One lesson that successful models of missing middle construction show is that flexible rules are key to realizing infill construction. Today, the majority of Palisades Park’s housing units are in two-unit structures. But some neighboring jurisdictions that appear to permit two-unit housing have not seen the same results. In some cases, these jurisdictions ban side-by-side duplexes, permitting only up-down two-family construction. This model is less appealing to home buyers and has resulted in much less construction. Other localities permit two-family construction but effectively cut it off with a subjective review process.
Houston’s townhouses and Palisades Park’s duplexes are not inexpensive. They are large, new construction units in desirable locations. However, they are making important contributions to new regional housing supply and contributing to affordability through the filtering process. Arlington policymakers have expressed concern that some of the County’s missing middle construction similar to the Houston and Palisades Park models are not meeting the County’s goals. New, large townhouses and duplexes in Arlington are perhaps not the cost-effective missing middle units policymakers have in mind. But large missing middle units are not the problem; constraints that prevent any type of missing middle or multifamily housing on the majority of residentially-zoned land in the County are. Permitting housing at the density of Houston townhouses or Palisades Park duplexes would permit three to six households to live on lots currently designated for single-family houses, substantially improving access and affordability in the region.
Attempting to restrict townhouse or duplex development is not the answer, but DC’s RA-2 zoning provides a model that is resulting in a wide variety of types of missing middle units in the Carver-Langston and Kingman Park neighborhoods. The RA-2 zone allows for buildings up to 50-feet tall with no side setbacks and up to a 1.8 floor area ratio. It has resulted in small walk-up apartment buildings with a variety of unit sizes to meet the needs of different types of households, from one– to four-bedroom units.
RA-2 buildings in DC have the affordability characteristics of missing middle housing, in that they have the relatively low construction costs of single-family housing while allowing multiple households to share expensive land. However, new construction and conversions in RA-2 zones add square footage in addition to new units relative to existing rowhouses. Policymakers have sometimes sought a goldilocks missing middle outcome in which new missing middle units are built, providing a lower-cost housing choice relative to single-family housing that doesn’t change a neighborhood’s built form.
Earlier this year, Minneapolis implemented zoning reforms to permit triplexes on every lot in the city where only single-family houses were permitted previously. This important reform is one step to reverse the effects of exclusionary zoning restrictions that drive up the cost of housing and limit low- and moderate-income households’ choices of where to locate.
However, prior to implementing its famous triplex reform, Minneapolis policymakers passed zoning rules intended to prevent “McMansion” construction. These rules limit structures in the city’s lowest-density residential zoning district to 2,500 square feet and limit their height to 28 feet. Now that three units are permitted rather than one, these anti-McMansion rules are standing in the way of triplexes, according to homebuilders.
This experience demonstrates the importance of flexible rules for allowing housing construction to respond to changing demand. So far, the reform has resulted in a disappointing level of missing middle construction with just three triplexes permitted so far, several months after they have been permitted. Minneapolis’ triplex reform proved to be politically feasible, but it may not be an economically feasible way to actually gain missing middle construction.
The Minneapolis Planning Commission has recommended new built form regulations that would make triplexes more feasible to build, but it would continue to set lower limits on the size permitted for new single-family houses. However, converting large, single-family houses into apartments years after they’ve been built can result in one of the lowest-cost source of apartments. Choking off large, new single-family houses stands in the way of this opportunity. In general, permitting greater flexibility for homeowners to provide a flexible housing supply in response to changing housing market conditions is key to maintaining affordability.
Housing in Arlington and the Environment
Arlington residents and policymakers regularly raise concerns that development of any type could reduce the County’s tree canopy. This is true, but policy decisions should consider the regional and global environmental benefits of permitting construction in Arlington in addition to the local costs. Allowing more people to live closer to the region’s job center and transit offers major environmental benefits. A study of residents of Boulder, CO, found that on average, residents who live in city limits commute 12.8 miles compared to nonresidents who work in Boulder who commute 29 miles, resulting in a substantial difference in greenhouse gas emissions and traffic.
Similarly, allowing more people to live in Arlington presents substantial opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of commuting. And permitting more people to live in attached housing is more energy-efficient to heat and cool relative to detached, single-family housing. To address the concern of tree canopy loss, New York City’s street tree program provides a model. It has resulted in close to 700,000 trees, providing shade, visual amenities, and stormwater management benefits.
Arlington has shown the potential for transit-oriented development to make room for residents in high-opportunity suburban jurisdictions. Yet more work remains to be done to open up the County to more residents at more affordable prices. Increasing flexibility for homebuilders to provide both more apartment buildings near Metro stations and more missing middle housing across the County will allow Arlington to remain a model of a suburb open to new residents of all income levels.