Testimony to Arlington Planning Commission, March 2023

(Italicized sections were cut entirely from the delivered testimony for brevity.)

Thank you for the opportunity to speak. My name is Payton Chung. After grad school for planning at Virginia Tech in Arlington, I am now a developer of Missing Middle scaled housing. Because that job does not yet exist around here, I mostly work in Raleigh, NC, a prime destination for people who have been priced out of northern Virginia. I can attest that Raleigh’s Missing Middle text changes have made it possible for me to offer smaller, lower-priced houses than the large new houses built across the street just before the text changes. Many of those arriving in Raleigh have been priced out of places like Arlington, which has better infrastructure than Raleigh — much better transit, no water shortages, a regionwide trail network, less crowded schools — but which lacks sufficient housing infrastructure.

The “tall or sprawl” dichotomy of Arlington’s “bulls-eye approach” to planning relies almost entirely on two uniquely high-cost housing types: land-intensive detached houses and capital-intensive high-rise apartments. As a result, it necessarily results in high housing costs. Missing Middle Housing offers a middle ground: less land than detached houses and less materials and labor than high-rises. Yet Missing Middle Housing production, like production of anything else, best achieves lower costs once it achieves economies of scale. It can only reach its full potential for lower costs if it becomes widespread and well-practiced.

Not only does this call for removing artificial zoning limitations, but it also requires related changes to building codes, financing practices, and construction practices.  That means allowing more units, in more locations, and not rationing it with a countywide cap. Redevelopment is already an inherently slow process, since it’s limited by land availability. Only 3/10ths of 1% of Arlington’s single family houses are listed for sale today. Progress towards the county’s equity, affordability, or sustainability goals should not be further limited.

EHO will not solve the affordable housing crisis, but it will make existing subsidy dollars and programs go much further. For instance, Virginia Housing offers subsidized loans to first-time homebuyers up to a cap of $665,000. A house at that price is roughly affordable to the median Arlington household. Right now, there are zero new construction houses available in Arlington to meet that budget. Some older houses are available, but with either maintenance needs or condo fees that would sink many first-time homebuyers. However, there are 108 new homes available under that cap in equally land-constrained, equally highly regulated DC and Alexandria — and 98% are in “missing middle” sized buildings that are basically illegal to build in Arlington today. Instead, new houses in almost all of Arlington are available only for households earning more than the President of the United States — top-3% incomes in America.

The EHO text attempts to incentivize 4-6 flat buildings, but building codes and lending practices continue to favor fee-simple townhouses. I suggest further study to adapt building codes to enable flats, review townhouses’ specific urban design challenges, require public access easements so that driveways contribute to the street network, and allowing townhouse accessory dwelling units– “English basements” are an established pattern for attainable housing in this region.

And last, a quick response to complaints about infrastructure sufficiency. Infrastructure is continually repaired and replaced, for example through Arlington’s $4.4 billion Capital Improvement Program — including almost $1 billion just in water infrastructure. We’ve known since the federal government’s 1974 “Costs of Sprawl” report that expanding existing infrastructure in existing urbanized areas is more cost effective than building it new in rural areas.

Take rail transit, for example: restricting growth here means that Arlington pays WMATA extra to run trains with excess capacity here, while Virginia spends billions to expand rail service for Arlington commuters’ hour or two-hour trips to Ashburn and Ashland. Instead, Arlington should welcome more of those commuters to live here and take the trains built decades ago, when doing so was much cheaper. At a time when new houses are being sold to Arlington commuters in Caroline County, 70 miles down I-95, we need to be cognizant that while infrastructure in Arlington might not be perfect, it’s much better than infrastructure elsewhere.

It’s especially puzzling to hear complaints about strained infrastructure come from neighborhoods where the population has shrunk, rather than grown. Even as Arlington’s population grew by 15% since 2010, CPHD estimates that the population in Old Glebe declined by 13.6%. When Arlington’s low-density neighborhoods were built, life expectancy was still in the 60s; now a typical Arlingtonian lives to 85. That’s terrific news, but it means that Arlington needs more housing units even for exactly the same population — much less a growing one.

I commend the Commission and County for the progress made to date. This zoning change may seem momentous, but even the dry and bitter pill of zoning reform is not a magic pill. It can merely reshape changes that are already occurring to neighborhoods, and hopefully in a way that shifts rather than reinforces the unjust, unsustainable status quo.


Your thoughts, please

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.