As Arlington leaders move forward on what critics characterize as a war on single-family zoning, staff leading the effort acknowledge there has been no cost-benefit analysis of exactly how such a major zoning change would impact the local government’s bottom line.
Nor is there likely to be one.
“We typically don’t do analysis of this nature. It’s hard to even capture all of that,” said Richard Tucker, one of a number of county-government housing personnel dispatched to the June 14 meeting of the Arlington County Civic Federation to address an issue that is fast becoming the most contentious Arlington battle since the Columbia Pike streetcar fight of a decade ago.
At the meeting, county staff did not back away from the idea that as many as eight housing units could be shoehorned onto existing single-family lots as part of the government’s “Missing Middle” effort, and while attempting to downplay the extent of major changes to single-family neighborhoods, Tucker did acknowledge that developers would have an incentive to squeeze multiple living spaces onto a lot.
Six-plexes and eight-plexes “are more profitable” for developers, albeit more complicated, he said at the meeting.
The meeting, which was held with attendees both in person and online, began to unravel midway through. Ultimately, the staff sent by County Manager Mark Schwartz to answer questions retreated to taking them down with promises of addressing them in writing later.
County Board members in July are expected to direct staff to move forward with the process of developing zoning guidelines that will effectively gut protections single-family neighborhoods have had for a century. Enactment of the new policy could come as early as the end of the year, although there seems to be increasing community opposition as individual neighborhoods begin to get wind of the plans.
Michael Bruce, a civic-association president, said the effort “needs more public dialogue.”
“It’s not the Arlington Way,” he said of the name of the county’s longtime collaborative-governance effort. (Both the phrase and the collaboration between county government and residents seem to have faded in recent years.)
Proponents of the Missing Middle zoning changes say they will have negligible impacts, because the footprint of the new housing (be it two, four, six or eight units) would not be allowed to be larger than that currently permitted for single-family homes in any given neighborhood.
But one local real-estate professional at the meeting said that view didn’t reflect reality, as very few single-family homes come close to maximum lot coverage. Her prediction: Arlington’s remaining mid-century ramblers would come down, replaced by multiple units that take up every square foot of available lot coverage.
The Missing Middle proposal does have its advocates, including those who say it will reduce the cost of housing and allow a broader group of people to buy into Arlington.
Maybe, but county officials estimate that even one-bedroom units in eight-plexes would be sold for more than a half-million dollars, and duplexes would go for as much as $1.4 million.
Those won’t exactly be attracting the lower-middle-income residents that increasingly are being priced out of Arlington, but “it’s certainly attainable to many, many more households” than under current zoning rules, said county housing staffer Matthew Ladd.
As for the proposal to cut in half parking requirements in affected neighborhoods, leading to fears that streets will be overwhelmed with residents trying to find a parking space, Ladd was not concerned.
“Not everyone has a need for a car,” he said.
Civic Federation delegate Michael Hemminger said moving to more options in single-family neighborhoods was a question of fairness.
Currently, “about 25 percent of the county’s current population enjoys about 75 percent of the land,” he said.
On the other side of the coin, Jerry Auten, a longtime civic activist, raised the specter of private-equity firms swooping in, purchasing up every older single-family home they could, razing and replacing them with much more intense projects that would then be rented out.
“There could be explosive things out there,” he said of unintended consequences.
Current projections from county staff suggest that will not be the case. They estimate that only about 20 single-family homes will come down to make way for approximately 100 units, although that’s based on the experience of other communities.
At the meeting, staff was asked whether current homeowners would see a bump up in their real-estate taxes, owing to higher assessments due to increased development potential.
Tucker said that would not be the case, because assessments are based on “improvements to your property,” but as any Arlington homeowner who reads tax bills know, the assessment actually is a combination of improvements and the value of land.
A number of voices at the meeting attempted to forge a middle ground, asking for a test of the proposed changes in certain neighborhoods that want it, in order to test out the ramifications.
“Do it in stages,” pleaded Ted Saks, a veteran of Arlington’s civic activism on the planning-and-zoning front.
With advocates and opponents of the proposal having gone to their corners and come out swinging, it was up to former County Board member John Vihstadt, who moderated the June 14 forum, to try and keep things on track.
It didn’t always run smoothly.
“This is an imperfect process,” Vihstadt said of trying to juggle people attending in person and the group that was checking in online from their homes.
Vihstadt eventually gave up on trying to get staff responses to questions ranging from parking to tree canopy.
“We’ll get the questions out there and hear what is on people’s minds,” he said, with staff responses being posted later at civfed.org.