As they have for the past several months, Arlington County Board members entered 2020 assuming a defensive crouch on the issue of “upzoning” single-family neighborhoods to accommodate more properties and, in theory, keep costs of local housing from ascending further into the stratosphere.
The issue of potential changes to single-family zoning percolated just below the surface for much of 2019, but burst forth publicly late in the year when the county government approved plans for a study of zoning issues.
“None of us are interested in destroying all our single-family neighborhoods,” new County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said during the board’s Jan. 2 meeting with the Arlington County Civic Federation.
Despite protestations to the contrary, a number of county residents have the feeling the fix already is in. “You already have in mind exactly where you’re going to upzone,” one participant at the Civic Federation forum sniffed.
Not so, replied County Board Vice Chairman Erik Gutshall, who promised a more nuanced approach to housing that “will vary across the county.”
Among those hoping for a more nuanced approach was Civic Federation president Sandy Newton, who cautioned board members that “you can’t do it all.” Newton told County Board members they could provide more housing without aligning it to existing transportation routes, as transportation options would ultimately follow growth patterns.
Housing advocates at the national level have been pressing for revisions to single-family zoning, which largely has been sacrosanct in most communities across the U.S., due to the political clout of homeowners. A bill introduced for the 2020 General Assembly session would effectively eliminate single-family zoning statewide, although it is seen as having little chance of passage.
The push for allowing more homes in residential areas seems counterintuitive to Civic Federation delegate Ed Weiler, since more homes would put more pressure on the county’s antiquated stormwater system.
“We’re in catch-up mode on stormwater, but we’re going to storm ahead and make more density,” Weiler said. “There’s a contradiction.”
But without some change, Arlington – where the average single-family home sells for more than $1 million – will grow increasingly unaffordable, one County Board member said at the Civic Federation confab.
“If we add supply, it’s not going to drop prices,” Matt de Ferranti said. “But if we don’t add supply, homes are going to be so expensive that none of your kids can afford to live here.”
At the forum, Garvey promised that the Civic Federation would play an integral role in any civic-engagement process that transpires in coming months. She reiterated the board’s position that zoning changes are not a done deal.
The so-called “missing middle” housing study is slated to kick off sometime in the spring.