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Arlington County to hear community input on housing availability, affordability

Single family homes in Arlington routinely cost more than $1 million, a price too high for most young professionals looking to buy a starter home. (7News){p}{/p}
Single family homes in Arlington routinely cost more than $1 million, a price too high for most young professionals looking to buy a starter home. (7News)

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Like many young professionals who live in Arlington, the cost of buying a home lives rent-free in Maureen Coffey's head.

"As a millennial, I spend plenty of time on Zillow," Coffey said.

But it's plenty of scrolling for Coffey without being able to send an offer.

According to data from the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, the average price of a home in Arlington as of this past July - their most recent data - is $894,779. This is a 13.9% increase from the same time last year.

"When it came to looking for something in the price range that someone who is still early career could actually afford, it just doesn't exist in Arlington," Coffey said. "[My friends and I] all look at each other like, 'What future do you see?' Because we want to stay in Arlington. We already live here. We already have all of our networks here, and we want to stay, but it's just looking ahead and say, 'Is there even a path to that?' I don't know what that looks like right now."

Part of the issue for first-time home buyer hopefuls like Coffey is the lack of cheaper starter-home options in the city.

On one end of the spectrum, there are apartments. Single-family homes are on the opposite end. Right now, Arlington County leaders are pushing to increase the number of homes in between these two options, known as middle housing. These types of homes include traditionally more affordable options like townhouses and duplexes.

In cities like Arlington that lack these options, this phenomenon is known as "the missing middle."

"The only things I see being built when I walk around my neighborhood are giant single family homes that are 5, 6-bedroom homes that cost $2 million," Coffey said. "I've heard there are duplexes in Arlington. I can't personally say I've seen them."

The average price for homes in the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors lumps together middle housing and single-family homes.

If you break down the data further, the average cost of a two-bedroom single family home is $724,650 this year. For a three-bedroom single family home, that average cost jumps to $1,072,076, with a four-bedroom hitting $1,459,944.

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol said the county's efforts to improve options for middle housing dates back to 2020, when they began their three-phase approach.

Phase one began with community feedback on what housing is needed, with phase 2 focusing on sharing what the county learned during phase one. Now, phase 3 is focused on coming up with possible policy or code changes the county can carry out in order to increase affordable middle housing.

"Part of it is listening. We've been engaged in this overall study for going onto our third year. But we know since phase two kicked off and now we're in phase three of really starting to put pen to paper on some of the potential zoning changes we could consider, there's been a ton of engagement. We really realized one size does not fit all for how people want to participate. Some people have a lot of questions and really want to get deeply into the materials about why this is needed," Cristol said. "The idea of those smaller sessions is really to give everyone a chance to talk, to hear from their neighbors, to share what they're optimistic about, what they're worried about, what they hate, what they love about this proposal, ask questions and get answers to the extent applicable, and really engage in that dialogue neighbor-to-neighbor."

Phase three will begin with three information sessions and 11 community conversations held by Arlington County starting September 13.

However, the process has not been without its critics.

"My colleagues and I are hearing one of the greatest concerns in the community is that people are going to try and figure out a way to shoehorn the largest multiplexes onto the smallest lots," Cristol said. "They're worried that this might incentivize tear-downs relative to the existing incentives to tear down single family homes and build very large single family homes, which we're seeing a lot of now. They're concerned about storm water runoff. Arlington, like a lot of communities, have been experiencing a lot of flooding due to climate change level storms and other environmental considerations. They also wonder if the community is prepared to absorb new residents, whether that be our public schools or if our parks have enough capacity."

Cristol said she believes solutions being discussed now will ease these concerns.

The Arlington County Board chair said her colleagues are working to make sure any changes to any land use codes will not lead to anyone trying to pack a lot meant for a single family home with too many units.

"One of the main pieces of the proposal is that anything that will be built would have to be within the footprint of what's legally allowable as a single family home. We don't want people to have the opportunity to build something much larger than what they would be able to build if it was just one house," Cristol said. "One of the things our staff are iterating with us on is how do you structure the zoning ordinance amendments to preclude the most incompatible forms of smallest lots, largest number of units."

Meanwhile, Coffey said she is optimistic these community conversations will be a major step forward in increasing affordable duplexes, townhouses, and other middle housing options.

"It's to really move Arlington into the next era. People live here. There's not enough housing as it is. If we don't do something, we're not going to retain a lot of what's great about Arlington moving forward. I think bringing it back to the fact that this is about people, this is about our community," Coffey said. "We need to figure out something that incentivizes people to build more housing that is in the affordable range so that it's not just these luxury buildings going up."

While there's hope these discussions will improve options, prospective home buyers still have cost in the back of their minds.

Even though the average cost for single family homes in Arlington are significantly higher than the cost of middle housing, known as "attached" homes in the data from the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, those costs are still high.

An attached two-bedroom home costs an average of $583,640 in Arlington this year, with three-bedroom attached homes hitting $924,702, and four-bedroom attached homes sitting at $1,128,374.

Cristol said she also hears about cost concerns for middle housing options, which is why the work doesn't end at phase three of their missing middle study.

"The idea that one policy can solve that whole spectrum, we know that's not possible. It is incredibly important to my colleagues and me on the board that we do not take our foot off the gas of that whole spectrum of policies that can help our neighbors at every income band," Cristol said. "The fact there's not ownership opportunities increasingly for those folks to buy in and put down roots, it's not the same problem as the need to provide very low income housing, but it is a problem and it's one this policy is designed to address."

The following are dates and times for the 11 community conversations:

  1. Tues., Sept. 13 – 7:00-8:30 p.m. (Virtual)
  2. Thurs., Sept. 15 – 7:00-8:30 p.m. (In Person)
  3. Thurs., Sept. 22 – 7:00-8:30 a.m. (Virtual)
  4. Fri., Sept. 23 – 7:00-8:30 p.m. (En Persona y en Español)
  5. Sat., Sept. 24 – 9:00-10:30 a.m. (In Person)
  6. Sat., Oct. 1 – 1:00-2:30 p.m. (In Person)
  7. Tues., Oct. 4 – 7:30-9:00 a.m. (Virtual/Traducción en Español)
  8. Thurs., Oct. 6 – 12:00 to 1:30 p.m. (In Person)
  9. Tues., Oct. 11 – 7:30-9:00 a.m. (In Person)
  10. Wed., Oct. 19 – 7:00-8:30 p.m. (Virtual)
  11. Tues., Oct. 25 – 12:00-1:30 p.m. (Virtual/Traducción en Español)

The following are the dates and times for the three information sessions

  1. Wed., Sept. 14 at 7:00 p.m.
  2. Wed., Sept. 28 at 7:00 p.m.
  3. Wed., Oct. 12 at 7:00 p.m.

Coffey said she plans to participate in this portion of the missing middle study, and is hopeful this movement by the county will benefit her.

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"I would like my first home to not be when I've already turned 50," Coffey said.

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