For decades, retaining the sanctity of zoning in Arlington’s single-family neighborhoods was something of a third rail in local politics. Candidates who touched the issue frequently got fried.
That may be changing (the jury is still out; see below). Regardless, the three candidates in the July 7 County Board special election tiptoed carefully through minefields in addressing the topic at a recent debate.
To say their ideas were general rather than specific would be putting it mildly.
Balancing the housing needs of the community represents “a critical challenge,” said Takis Karantonis, the Democratic nominee in the upcoming race to succeed the late Erik Gutshall.
“We are in a market that is just too expensive. We do not have the supply,” Karantonis said at a June 10 debate sponsored by the Arlington Committee of 100.
It was the kind of careful, nebulous phraseology that was largely followed by the two others on the ballot:
• Independent Susan Cunningham said she supported “very selective” efforts to change zoning.
But in the next breath, she noted, “that does not mean getting rid of single-family homes.”
• Republican Bob Cambridge professed himself “a little bit bothered” by the idea of upzoning large tracts of the community, but said he would support efforts to provide housing for public-safety workers and others.
“We need to focus on this problem and do something about it,” he said.
One of the three candidates will be voted into office to succeed Gutshall, who died in April following a two-month battle with brain cancer. During his two years on the County Board, Gutshall was a proponent for what has become known as the “missing middle” – finding ways to avoid Arlington’s becoming an enclave of expensive housing on the one side and (largely government-subsidized) affordable housing on the other.
Over the past two years, some county-government planning initiatives and activism by housing and political groups have led to concerns among some in Arlington’s large swaths of single-family communities that the floodgates could be opened to a zoning free-for-all that could impact property values. Those supporting revisions to existing zoning regulations say the fears are unfounded.
Karantonis, the former executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization and a board member of the Arlingtonians for Housing Solutions advocacy group, is the odds-on favorite to win the special election. Asked about zoning at the Committee of 100 debate, he went with responses seemingly tailored not to give offense to any side.
Karantonis said the county government should consider “very gentle” density changes in order to “add some supply where it is appropriate.”
Over the past quarter-century, Arlington has lost an extraordinary amount of what might be called starter housing” – moderately priced small houses and relatively inexpensive apartments and condominiums. In its place has come “committed-affordable” apartment housing, usually provided by non-profit housing developers using an array of financing, some of it from the county government.
(“Affordable” in “committed-affordable” applies to what is charged those living there, not to the costs of construction, which on a per-unit basis have reached and in some cases exceeded $400,000 per apartment, which critics say restricts supply and harms the very people housing efforts are trying to help.)
While the stock of committed-affordable apartment units continues to grow in Arlington, it remains far below the number of affordable units that once existed. Meanwhile, on the single-family front, the average selling price of existing homes in Arlington is hovering around $1 million, and the price of new homes often is substantially more due to the acquisition cost of land in the 26-square-mile county.
For decades, residents of single-family neighborhoods – no matter their political affiliation or voting patterns at the state or national levels – could be counted as the key voting bloc in County Board elections. Politicians were careful to keep them happy.
But in recent years, efforts by the Arlington County Democratic Committee to turn out voters in multi-family areas of the county have changed the political calculus somewhat. Those voters may have little interest in the nitty-gritty details of local governance, but are likely to cast ballots for those who promise a greater array of housing options, even at the expense of single-family neighborhoods.
Yet even if significant zoning changes are implemented, it remains an open question how much, if at all, local-government policies would impact the economic forces that have sent local real estate into the financial stratosphere.
The special election will be decided in a few weeks, but the housing issue will be taken back up on the political battlefield in the fall, when Democratic County Board Chairman Libby Garvey works to defend her seat against a challenge from perennial candidate Audrey Clement. The two previously faced off in 2016.