Growing up in the Lyon Park neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, I knew my house was the place to be. It was conveniently located between Clarendon, our shopping center, and my middle school, which meant that everything I could desire was a walk or a short bike ride away. Across the street from my house was a sledding hill so popular that you had to show up early on snow days to get in some good runs. I absolutely loved the place. My parents became first-time homeowners in 1998 when they bought the house, a four-bedroom, blue-green colonial about half a mile from the Clarendon Metro stop. I was born a few months later in Fairfax County, because Arlington’s hospital wouldn’t take my parents’ insurance (a fact I resent with Leslie Knope-ian fervor), but other than that slight snafu, I grew up a proud resident.
I attended elementary and middle schools ranked among Virginia’s best, with a financially, racially, and ethnically diverse student body. At my middle school’s International Night, where students would bring food that represented their culture, the entire gym would be filled with the enticing smell of pupusas, samosas, and injera. After school, my friends and I would walk or ride our bikes into downtown Clarendon—one of the biggest downtown areas and Metro corridors—to peruse our favorite consignment store, have snowball fights at the park, and get frozen yogurt. (This was, after all, the early 2010s!) It didn’t matter that we were too young to drive. Without having to rely on a ride, I could go to all of my friends’ houses, to parks, stores, and restaurants, and even to downtown Washington, D.C., hopping on the Metro. If I hadn’t been a gangly preteen who thought it was acceptable to wear water sandals to school, my memories would be truly idyllic.
Arlington was an amazing place to grow up, largely because it has rejected the rigid and exclusive aesthetics that give suburbs their notoriety. Its embrace of mixed densities lent it the walkability and diversity that fostered an amazing childhood. Once a sleepy backwater, Arlington County adopted pro-development policies in the years after World War II. As the county’s population exploded along with the size of the federal government, zoning ordinances changed to permit multi-family housing along streetcar corridors and in the areas around federally built apartment villages for defense employees. Arlington’s character as a suburban outlier especially took off after the construction of the D.C. Metro system, during which county officials successfully advocated for the building of two Metro lines to run through its commercial corridors, rather than expand highways. As part of those negotiations, the county struck what housing organizers refer to as a “grand compromise”—permitting high-rise development around the new transit corridors and zoning the areas beyond transit centers, sometimes as close in as a quarter mile, for single families. It’s the perfect example of an anti-sprawl strategy that urban planners refer to as “smart growth.” (Arlington’s Ballston neighborhood, a downtown area only a mile from my childhood home, is even pictured on the term’s Wikipedia page.)
I may only be in my 20s, but the county has changed significantly over my lifetime. As a neighbor to D.C. and the home of the Pentagon, Arlington experienced a 20th-century boom that brought with it a transplant population of mostly highly educated federal employees. As the military-industrial complex grew, so did the number of defense contractors stationed in Arlington, including divisions of Boeing, BAE Systems, and a number of specialized cybersecurity and military technology firms. When my parents bought their house in 1998, new homes were still affordable for young couples and families. The neighborhood was mostly populated by retirees from the military or federal agencies. As I was growing up, most of our neighbors were federal employees, consultants, or in the nonprofit sector, with new immigrant families settling in the neighborhoods to the south, where more multifamily complexes are permitted. But in recent years, the growth has gone completely gangbusters. In 2017, Nestlé made Arlington its corporate headquarters; in late 2018, Amazon chose the county as the site of its HQ2. It’s easy to see why: Arlington is now the seventh-wealthiest county in the United States. All of this growth can be seen in the corporate skyscrapers going up in Rosslyn and Ballston, the staid restaurant mainstays replaced by chains, and, above all, the houses getting bigger and more expensive. Just take my parents—they sold their first home in 2016 for more than double its 1998 price. Today, just six years later, its value has gone up another estimated 27 percent. The people moving into our old neighborhood increasingly work in the private sector, and build new, larger houses on the existing lots.
Lingering over the entire situation is the specter of Amazon—literally. In addition to adding a few towers to the landscape, the retail giant is creating a 10.4-acre mega-campus dubbed “PenPlace,” a feasting ground for the architects, developers, and engineers tasked with implementing the company’s grandiose vision. Amazon, for its part, has pledged to contribute $50 million to Arlington’s affordable housing fund—an attempt to offset the displacement from 25,000 new workers earning an average of $150,000. The gesture is certainly welcome, though it most likely won’t prevent a shock to the system in a county already struggling under a housing crisis.
These days, home sales and sizes are constant neighborhood chatter. Every time I visit my parents and walk my dog, I can see the telltale Tyvek building paper, onsite porta-potties, and increasingly enormous frames that indicate a teardown—a large, pricey new house, or even a McMansion, replacing a modest-sized home. The conversations among neighbors always arrive at the same question: How will any of us who were raised in Arlington ever be able to afford it?
Arlington’s housing market—and the fracas over how to solve it—illustrates one part of America’s broader housing shortage.
In a 2021 report, Freddie Mac estimated that the nation has a housing deficit of 3.8 million units. A March report from the Pew Research Center revealed just how tight the market has become; the median U.S. home sale price rose to $440,300 in the second quarter of 2022, up 84 percent from 10 years ago, and 46 percent of renters are now classified as “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
There’s enormous demand, and limited supply. The shortage is exacerbating homelessness. It’s keeping home-ownership—among the best ways to build generational wealth—unattainable for renters. And it’s deepening inequality between owners, who see their properties continuing to appreciate at historic rates, and those who don’t own.
So why can’t we increase our supply? Put simply, we’ve outlawed density.
Exclusionary zoning has limited where and what kinds of housing can be built and artificially restricted new density in the majority of neighborhoods. Created explicitly to maintain segregation in cities with diverse populations, and then morphing into legally enforceable class-based discrimination, exclusionary zoning concentrates high home values, good public schools, and well-funded amenities in higher-income neighborhoods. In areas zoned for single families, the only type of housing stock permitted is detached homes, a limitation that suppresses density and diversity. And these zoning restrictions come with a formidable army of NIMBYs, who are dead set on ensuring that any new development is “not in my backyard” and whose weapons include plenty of time to spend at city meetings, environmental lawsuits, and an ideological fervor against anything that may change the character of the neighborhood—be it an alley, a condo, or a person of another income level or race.
Meanwhile, neighborhoods have changed. Houses have gotten bigger. McMansions have entered the scene. And for many of the very NIMBYs who bought their houses when they were more affordable, it’s their own children or grandchildren who are now priced out, because the neighborhood has, above all, gotten more expensive. To close the gap, we need more dwellings. And to build those dwellings, we must permit them in places where zoning restrictions have outlawed them.
Arlington is at the forefront of this problem. It is one of the smallest counties in the United States and faces the challenge of housing nearly 240,000 people—with Amazon HQ2 employees on the way—on 26 square miles of land. The county touts itself as a bastion of inclusivity. In several respects, it is. Thus far, there are no abortion bans; Arlington routinely ranks well on lists of LGBTQ-friendly places to live; its schools have antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies. But all of the liberal yard signs in the world (“In This House, We Believe …”) won’t matter if Arlington is not affordable enough to actually include those it purports to welcome.
And that’s where a county proposal to build missing middle housing could make a difference.
Typically, our housing stock presents a binary choice: house or apartment. What that leaves out is what urbanists call the “missing middle”—duplexes, triplexes, and other multiplexes, along with townhouses, condos, accessory dwelling units, courtyard housing, and even cottage clusters. This type of housing was much more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and still exists in cities like Boston and D.C., which are known for their row houses and English basements. Providing more space than an apartment, but less costly than a house, missing middle housing injects affordability into neighborhoods that middle-class people, young families, and older people are typically priced out of.
In most places, these types of homes have been illegal to build since the 1940s. In Arlington itself, a few neighborhoods do have this gentle density, with multiplexes grandfathered into neighborhoods where they can no longer be built. But there’s a burgeoning movement, especially in smaller cities and more mixed-use suburbs, to once again permit these options. In 2020, the city council in Portland, Oregon, passed the Residential Infill Project, permitting the construction of alternative dwelling units (think “granny flats”) up to four-plexes in what were previously single-family neighborhoods. In just 10 months since the ordinance went into effect, 511 new units have been permitted. Several cities in the Pacific Northwest, including Spokane, Washington, and Eugene, Oregon, and others, including Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Durham, North Carolina, have up-zoned to allow for some missing middle housing.
This year, Arlington released the Missing Middle Housing Draft Framework, based on a multiyear study by the county concluding that Arlington was becoming unaffordable and that residents were interested in a broader range of housing options. In December 2021, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors reported that the average single-family detached home in the county sold for almost $1.26 million. That price had risen 17 percent in just one year. Sale prices had appreciated nearly 70 percent in 10 years.
To solve the problem, the study recommended that land that’s exclusively zoned for single-family detached housing—or 79 percent of the county’s residential land—be zoned to permit duplexes, triplexes, and buildings up to eightplexes, along with townhouses, while adhering to existing design and height standards. The county estimated that the plan’s impact would be small at first. The study projects new development on 20 lots per year, bringing 150 “new neighbors” and adding nine to 13 new students to the school system per year. This missing middle housing is expected to help households earning between $108,000 and $200,000 who need smaller housing options, including young families, older Arlingtonians, people of color, and people with disabilities.
The draft framework lays out how expanding housing typology for more efficient land use will improve equity in the county. The study found that Arlington’s zoning code—such as eliminating the construction of row houses, where Black residents lived throughout the D.C. metro area, in 1938—has explicitly created segregation and driven Black residents out of the county. The study’s authors called the proposal a first step to “undo the restrictive zoning that led to racial disparities in housing and wealth-building opportunities for the past 90 years.” Initially, the change would be relatively small, a drop in the bucket against decades of exclusion. But as housing advocates like to repeat, the best time to build new housing was 50 years ago. The second-best time is now.
But try telling that to the NIMBYs.
At a county board meeting to discuss the issue in June, the plan’s supporters, including the group YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, sat on one side of the room, while their opponents, Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future—the NIMBYs—held court on the other. A YIMBY speaker (“yes in my backyard”) rose to declare that adding greater housing choice would bolster Arlington’s diversity and affordability. And then the NIMBYs went berserk.
Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (which sounds pleasant enough; who could be against sustainability?) put up flyers around the county saying that the draft framework would overcrowd schools, increase traffic, and demolish affordable housing. Adding more middle-class housing choices, its leaders said, represented the county’s “single-minded pursuit of revenue” and an abandonment of “the Arlington way.” At the county board meeting, typically orderly, the public comment period exploded with NIMBY boos, eliciting incredulity from board members.
“We say no more densification without representation!” ASF member Anne Bodine declared. The NIMBYs were chastised by board members for shouting out of turn, and then booed the county’s leadership for correcting them. Once they realized that the YIMBYs had picked the side of the room where their signs could be seen on the county’s streaming camera, one woman from the NIMBY side got up, kneeled in the aisle, and held her sign in front of a YIMBY one, tracking his position like a cornerback and then adjusting her sign—“The Arlington Way Has … Gone Astray”—to block his.
But what is the “Arlington way”? A typical rule of thumb for prospective homeowners is to not buy a home that’s worth three times more than the family’s gross annual income. Arlington’s median household income is $122,604. The average home sale price in August 2022 was $769,565.
“It would be hard to look at the Arlington market and think, ‘Does this work for anyone except the very wealthy?’ ” Jane Green, the president of YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, told me. “It’s not a good system.”
Those for whom the system works—homeowners—typically have the loudest voices. As part of the second stage of its housing study, Arlington’s government solicited feedback from residents. The results were telling—while 77 percent of renter respondents liked the plan as is, 75 percent of homeowners asked the county to narrow the amount of proposed new housing types permitted in the framework. The political power of the homeowner class is clear. Though the county is majority-renter, homeowners made up nearly 84 percent of the survey’s respondents. The county is already suggesting options that would walk back the original proposal, such as bumping the minimum parking requirement for missing middle housing up to one parking space per unit from a half of a space, which makes triplexes or quadplexes more unlikely, or limiting the number of single-family neighborhoods in which missing middle housing would be permitted.
And while YIMBY groups proved powerful in Portland and have put together successful coalitions in college towns such as Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Gainesville, Florida, Arlington, with its significant wealthy, politically active, and easily mobilized homeowner population, could prove to be a different beast. (If the county board makes decisions based on how many flyers each side is able to put up, then the draft framework is certainly doomed.) Members of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future have been making the rounds of neighborhood civic organizations and flooding county board meetings with testimony, telling leaders that adding some duplexes and condos is tantamount to turning “our urban village [in]to a paved metropolis.”
Homesickness is an all-encompassing emotion, a lingering sense never quite resolved. Singers express nostalgia for the places they’ve long since left behind; literary characters come to the realization that it’s not their hometown that has changed but, rather, they themselves who have evolved.
The immutability of home can certainly be comforting. Every time I returned from college and hung out with my friends in D.C., I would drive home late at night over Georgetown’s Key Bridge into Rosslyn, just me and the skyscrapers alone in the midnight secrets we shared, as if the city were welcoming me back. When I walk my dog into Clarendon, I recall window shopping with my middle school friends, the memories greeting me like an old companion. In the glow of neighborhood holiday parties—the same ones I’ve been going to forever—it’s a comfort to know that though I’ve moved away many times, I can, in fact, go home again, and relax in the ease of familiarity. It’s the seriousness with which we take youth recreational basketball rivalries, knowing phrases like “Superman Hill” and “DMV,” and cheering the success of restaurants like District Taco, which I first went to when it was a food truck but which now has nearly 15 locations.
That’s my Arlington. But someone who moved here 40 years ago would have no such association with Rosslyn’s skyscrapers or Clarendon’s character. Perhaps they have their own memories of the neighborhoods that built them; perhaps their neighbors have moved away; maybe they wanted to downsize and found that the middle-class Arlington they arrived in has changed irreparably.
Places change and fluctuate with their economic fortunes, their policies, and the passage of time. That’s inevitable—despite the constant refrains from someone who arrived 10 years before you claiming that you can’t be a real “Your City Here”–onian unless you went to this bar or that restaurant or experienced some bygone event. Cities cannot be preserved in amber—and, given their legacies of exclusion, they shouldn’t. But places do have a say in how they change, which is why debates over housing boil down to a fundamental question: To whom does a city or town belong?
NIMBYs would tell you it belongs to the existing homeowners—even in places like Arlington, where the majority of residents are renters—and that change is inherently negative. But a place’s existence is contingent on its ability to evolve, and to meet the needs of tomorrow’s residents as well as today’s. Arlington will change. It will either become more dense, climate resilient, and affordable, or, by maintaining the status quo, it will become increasingly exclusive.
My Arlington belongs to the public school teachers who first sparked my interest in journalism. It belongs to those who worked at favorite restaurants that moved away or no longer exist, like Hunan Number One, now a West Coast–themed seafood restaurant from a big D.C. restaurant group, or Tandoori Nights, an Indian spot that closed and has not been replaced. I hope it can belong to me.
Everyone deserves to grow up in a place like Arlington—walkable, transit oriented, full of interesting restaurants and stores, diverse, and with great schools and nice parks. A wonderful place to learn to ride a bike, to develop an interest, and to make lifelong friends. But I know that given my current career trajectory, becoming a homeowner in Arlington is unlikely. If the city had been as expensive when my parents were a young couple looking in the late 1990s, I would have been raised in a farther-out suburb like Woodbridge or Lorton instead.
At the June county board meeting, before the boos began raining down, Wells Harrell, a member of YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, expressed my feelings on the subject succinctly.
“I love my neighborhood,” he said. “And sometimes, when you love something, you just want to share it with others.”