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What does Arlington’s ‘Missing Middle’ vote mean for Alexandria?

Community members at the Missing Middle vote in Arlington (staff photo)

After the Arlington County Board voted this week to allow multifamily structures in single-family home zoning, some Alexandrians looked north as a hopeful example and others as a warning of what could be ahead.

The Missing Middle vote — referring to the multi-family structures that proponents hope will help make housing more affordable — created nearly unprecedented levels of controversy in Arlington County.

Just hours after the vote, leading advocates in favor of eliminating single-family zoning said the next step of the fight is in Alexandria.

Alexandria just launched a major new affordable housing initiative this week called Zoning for Housing/Housing for All, aiming to reshape parts of the city’s zoning code from the ground up to further emphasize affordable housing, but those plans stop short of eliminating zoning for single-family housing.

Luca Gattoni-Celli, founder of YIMBYs of NoVA, spoke at the City Council last year and argued in favor of reform to single-family zoning. But while Alexandria’s generally been a regional leader in pushing for affordable housing, city leaders have been reticent to jump onto the “eliminate single-family housing zoning” bandwagon.

Alexandria’s Mayor Justin Wilson said it won’t be as simple as copying and pasting Arlington’s approach into Alexandria. According to Wilson:

While Alexandria and Arlington are similar communities, there are clearly big distinctions as well. When crafting answers to our shortage of housing and inequitable access, we must develop an Alexandria approach. Arlington’s actions offer some lessons as well as urgency for our work.

Bill Rossello, a former City Council candidate and current President of the Seminary Hill Association, said his biggest concern is that a similar “Missing Middle” debate would be just as divisive in Alexandria as it has been in Arlington.

Rossello said he is concerned the Housing For All initiative could take Alexandria in a similar policy direction as Arlington and eliminate single-family home zoning. But like Wilson, Rossello said Alexandria’s housing landscape is different enough from Arlington that the housing affordability issues can’t be approached in exactly the same way:

The communities are fundamentally different even though they’re next-door neighbors as it relates to housing. We have a much wider array of housing than Arlington does. We’re more urbanized already and much more densely populated. Our single-family home housing stock is much lower. The detached single-family housing stock in Alexandria covers about 29% of the land parenthetically… and only accounts for about 12% of the housing units. In Arlington it’s the reverse, more than 70% of the land is within single-family home zones.

Rossello said in some ways, the land constraints already make questions about single-family homes moot.

“We just don’t have enough land to build single-family homes,” Rossello said. “But where we get chunks of land to satisfy the economic objectives of a developer while not creating crazy amounts more density [is] probably townhouses… I actually think the answer might be more townhouses as opposed to apartments.”

Rossello said Alexandria also needs to do more to explore three-bedroom opportunities.

“A lot of homes on Seminary Hill are small single-family homes,” Rossello said. “We need more of those opportunities so people who are 30-35 can find something they can afford but also meets their needs so they can have a baby and two dogs. What’s our missing middle? Our missing middle is that.”

A virtual community listening session for Zoning for Housing/Housing for All is scheduled for tonight (Thursday) from 6-8 p.m. A presentation on the initiative is scheduled for the start of the meeting, with captioning and interpretation services in Spanish, Amharic and Arabic. The Webinar ID for the Zoom meeting is 960 0721 3678 and the passcode is 727732.

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