The city is hoping to make it easier to build “missing middle housing” around town and redevelop old properties. Architect Dan Parolek coined the term in 2010 to refer to buildings that aren’t quite detached suburban homes designed for a single family, yet are not large apartment complexes. Common types of missing middle housing include duplexes, cottage courts and small buildings with courtyards.
The housing types are considered “missing” because cities and states across the country began discouraging them, according to Rick Cole, executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
“There’s always been a mix of housing,” Cole said. “The idea of a single-family neighborhood, that’s a relatively modern invention. If you go to most neighborhoods that were built before World War II, they’ll have missing middle housing.”
Single-family homes accounted for nearly 70% of Arlington’s housing stock in 2020, according to the city’s annual development profile; the other 30% were classified as multifamily apartments. Arlington’s current ordinances allow for duplexes and fourplexes, as well as smaller homes on the same property as houses sometimes referred to as “granny flats” or “accessory apartments.”
Gincy Thoppil, Arlington’s planning and zoning director, said during a March 10 public input session where the Arlington residents were queried about what type of housing they want.
“There are other types of single-family living choices that people could have, and that’s what we’re talking about,” Thoppil said.
Changes to Arlington’s unified development code that could pave the way for more “missing middle housing” include creating a new mixed residential zoning district; simplifying the administrative approval process for redeveloping houses on small or oddly shaped lots; and allowing single-family property owners to build duplexes if they fit into the neighborhood’s design.
Some Arlingtonites who caught wind of the open house and discussions, and are worried about the changes creating more large apartment complexes or causing traffic jams, have loudly opposed the measures.
Dozens of people peppered Thoppil and other planners during three March 10 public input sessions stretched across one day. Planners asked residents to place suggestions and feedback on sticky notes. Some open house attendees posted sticky notes to posters that simply stated, “No.”
On March 8, council members asked that residents have more time and resources to understand the city’s asks. District 1 Council member Helen Moise compared the input sessions to the multiple town halls and discussion sessions the council has held about possible changes to the city’s trash collection.
“This is just as important as the trash discussion, in my opinion,” Moise said. “Why aren’t we taking it out to each district and having town halls and letting the public really weigh in and understand what this means?”
City officials plan to hold town halls in each City Council district between April 21 and June 21, according to a Tuesday City Council presentation.
Experts: Better communication needed
Arlington is far from alone in discussing missing middle housing, experts say. And the pushback from residents isn’t unique to the city either.
Hannah Lebovits, an assistant professor at UT Arlington, said missing middle housing can improve property values, boost neighborhood walkability and promote local businesses. However, middle housing types have remained missing because single-family homes and apartment complexes usually draw in the biggest returns on investment for developers. Renters also receive a bad rap from homeowners.
Arlington is also built in a way that promotes suburban living and requires residents own a car to get around.
“Those are assumptions that are literally built into the infrastructure here, and in order to combat that, you have to be open about what those assumptions are, and you have to be open with the fact that that doesn’t work for a lot of people who now live here,” Lebovits said.
The city is grappling with the need for more housing, particularly more affordable housing, she said. Arlington is also approaching buildout, with less than 10% of Arlington’s 50,565 acres in 2020 classified as vacant, developable land, according to the city’s annual development profile.
The proposed changes to Arlington zoning stem from a committee tasked with finding ways to reduce barriers to affordable housing. City leaders assembled the group of developers, planners and community members after a disparity report outlined the need to revisit zoning policies.
Lebovits said she’s sympathetic to people with concerns about the proposed changes. The materials they’ve had to work with on city proposals rely on urban planning jargon, she said, which does not translate well to people who are not developers.
“We’re trying to highlight there shouldn’t just be single-family homes and then 10-plus unit buildings, but it doesn’t really translate well to people who are just living their regular lives and who are used to this idea of this dichotomous, ‘either you have a massive apartment building or you have a single-family home,'” Lebovits said. “You have to show them the value.”
City officials could provide examples of projects that have worked well, Lebovits said, or places around town where Arlington could grow. Lebovits sees opportunities around Cooper Street, near the start of UTA’s main campus and the railroad crossing. Trains moving through downtown Arlington can hold up traffic for as long as 20 minutes, she said.
Cole said he’s spent 30 years reminding people that zoning ordinances are not “handed down by Moses.”
“We’ve been building towns and cities for 5,000 years,” he said. “Single-family zoning is a less-than 100-year-old experiment.”
Parolek, who responded to questions via email, said a couple of discussion points that normally come up in missing middle discussions include whether people want their children to be able to live in the city or neighborhood they grew up in, whether there are options for downsizing in their community and where people like teachers or firefighters going to live in their communities.
“All places need more attainable, non-single family housing choices,” Parolek wrote.
What to watch
New housing options, regardless of whether they’re “missing middle,” should not sacrifice quality over quantity, Lebovits said. Projects should also add character and fit in with the rest of the city. One way to assure that, Lebovits said, is to ask whether projects are investor-owned.
“A lot of these investors and developers, because they just do this in so many places, they just stick exactly the same building in, like, 50 different spots across the metroplex. How is that adding to the character of Arlington?” Lebovits said.
Cole said residents should be picky about design as well. That goes beyond building colors and characteristics.
“Design is where you put the front door,” he said. “Where do you put the windows? How do you lay out the buildings on a lot?”
Above all, he said, missing middle housing should help people, regardless of income, live in nice neighborhoods with meaningful connections to their neighbors and towns.
“Everybody should be able to live in a nice neighborhood. If everybody lived in a nice neighborhood, we would have less crime. Not that a nice neighborhood makes everybody happy and well-adjusted, but it certainly helps,” Cole said.
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