Can America afford suburbia? High prices have homebuyers seeking solutions

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary.
Maureen Coffey, a 27-year-old nonprofit employee, stands on the balcony of her one-bedroom apartment in Arlington, Va.

The email from the mortgage loan officer was supposed to be good news for Maureen Coffey.

A 27-year-old nonprofit employee, she never thought she would be able to afford to buy in Arlington County – a wealthy, liberal suburb across the river from Washington, D.C. – until he told her otherwise. Her steady income and strong credit would qualify her for a condominium costing as much as $300,000.

But the properties within her budget in this slice of Northern Virginia were all nonstarters: either tiny studios with $500-a-month condo fees, or units so far from public transit that she would have to commute an hour to work.

“I had done everything right,” Coffey said, “and that still was not enough to buy something.”

Across the country, low housing stock and skyrocketing prices mean plenty of others are facing a similar reality. With new units hardly being built fast enough in Arlington to fix the problem, local lawmakers are hoping one possible solution may lie in the county’s zoning code.

A proposal expected to go before the county board this fall would relax these rules, allowing developers to build duplexes, townhouses and small apartment buildings in the leafy suburban neighborhoods that take up much of Arlington’s 26 square miles.

It’s an idea that would do away with single-family zoning, which remains central to the American idea of suburbia. And it’s being considered by more communities around the country as their housing stock has failed to keep up with all the people trying to live there.

Officials in Gainesville, Fla., hope the city might lower rents in their increasingly costly college town. Spokane, Wash., city planners think they could accommodate the influx of transplants who moved in during the pandemic. And in Arlington, where empty land is scarce and most people live in single-family houses or high-rise apartments, lawmakers say they could create less expensive options that fill the gap in between.

“This is not necessarily going to deliver housing. It’s just lifting the barriers to do so,” said Arlington County Board member Takis Karantonis (D), who has vocally supported this push for “missing middle” housing. “If we succeed to have more production over the years, more people will have a real chance to buy and stay here.”

Yet, the question of how exactly the idea might help aspiring homeowners is one of many firestorms that have erupted across Arlington. Its critics point out – and some of its proponents concede – that many of these new units may not be directly affordable to the middle class.

Outside consultants commissioned by the county say that on the lowest end, the plan would create small one-bedrooms going for about $416,000. Based on their calculations, those apartments would only be attainable for someone making about $100,000 a year – just above the median income for a one-person household in the D.C. area, or below it for a couple.

“The county appears to have walked away from any discussion about affordability,” said Julie Lee, who owns a four-bedroom house in the Glencarlyn neighborhood and works with the group Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency. “I do not see how the missing middle framework as planned is going to bring down prices.”

Coffey admits that she’s not convinced, either. She makes less than $65,000, spends more than a third of her income on rent and wants to stay in nonprofits. Even the least expensive units of “missing middle” housing would be out of her budget.

“At the same time, we have to do something,” she said. “Would I like to see something with a lower price tag? Yeah, absolutely. But it’s still providing something that does not exist right now.”

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What is “missing middle” housing?

– “Missing middle” housing is a term that refers to small multiunit residential buildings like townhouses, duplexes and fourplexes.

– It covers a range of housing types that fit into the “middle” between detached single-family houses and high-rise apartment buildings – in terms of form, scale and number of units.

– In many neighborhoods, it’s been illegal to build this kind of housing for decades. That’s why housing advocates say it’s “missing.”

– The term was coined by architect Daniel Parolek, who says “missing middle” buildings should be in walkable areas and blend into nearby houses.

– Zoning changes that legalize the construction of these buildings make it easier to add more density to single-family neighborhoods.

– A growing list of governments, including those of cities Minneapolis and Charlotte, as well that of the state of California, have embraced this idea to the point of eliminating single-family zoning entirely.

– Skeptics of the idea have expressed concerns about how more homes and people may impact local infrastructure. They say “upzoning” will crowd schools and roads, clog up storm sewers, chop down remove trees and make it harder to find parking.

– Proponents of the idea say it is a form of “inclusionary zoning” that will correct racist zoning policies and create more – and more affordable – housing options, especially for young professionals or empty-nesters.

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For many, Arlington’s housing shortage is tied up with all the things that make it such an attractive place to live. Once a sleepy bedroom community, its population exploded in the 1940s and ’50s to transform it into what is now one of the country’s most densely populated counties.

Some families moved from Washington, D.C., in search of bigger houses or cheaper mortgages, while others flocked from across Virginia and the region for the quality of life: walkable neighborhoods, low crime rates, short commutes to job centers and top-ranked public schools.

An ahead-of-its-time effort to add high-rise buildings along Washington’s Metrorail line also brought young professionals like Coffey in droves, turning Arlington into a county of mostly renters in apartments and a top destination for millennials.

But as those millennials have gotten married and started families, the options for them to buy have not kept up with population growth. From 2010 through 2019, developers built a net of 11,370 housing units, according to a county report, while Arlington added about 30,000 people.

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol (D) was able to find room in the market eight years ago. Then 29, she and her husband, a federal employee, purchased a two-bedroom stacked flat in Arlington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood for less than half a million dollars.

When they decided to have a child, they used the assets they had built up to move to a larger property: a more expensive three-bedroom townhouse in nearby Douglas Park.

Similar choices, she said, are in short supply for younger members of her generation.

Because the county for decades stood in the way of building multifamily units, “missing middle” units like Cristol’s make up less than one-third of Arlington’s housing stock. Competition has made that limited supply more expensive.

A market frenzy for single-family houses, meanwhile, has also made those homes more costly. The average sales price for a single-family house in Arlington jumped 45 percent over the last decade, from $744,484 in 2010 to about $1.08 million in 2019.

“When there is an undersupply of housing, prices go up,” Cristol said, “and it means that only the people who can afford to bid the most for that housing get that housing.”

That has all made the price of land unusually expensive across Arlington, where there’s no room left for sprawl. To maximize profits, builders have torn down some smaller single-family homes – such as more affordable Cape Cods and Colonials – and erected dramatically larger houses in their place.

According to county data, 1,245 single-family homes in Arlington were torn down from 2009 to 2019, with an average size of about 1,500 square feet. The houses built to replace them were three times larger – and sold for an average of about $1.7 million.

The idea of “missing middle” is based on a similar economic proposition. If developers are already going to destroy small single-family homes and replace them with much larger ones, its proponents ask, why not replace them with townhouses or duplexes or perhaps even eight units – to house more people?

Coffey, who moved to a Clarendon, Va., rental last year after graduate school, had qualified for virtually every first-time home buyer program offered in Virginia. But exorbitant condo fees – which tend to be higher in more affordable, older buildings that require greater upkeep – created an impossible calculus on her budget, she said.

Joe Garon, her loan officer, said that about 3 in 4 first-time home buyers in Northern Virginia who have consulted him recently ended up giving up on their search and going back to renting.

“It was absolutely heartbreaking to see the number of people who got discouraged,” Garon, of Embrace Home Loans in Fairfax, Va., said in an interview. “Their offers were not even in the ballpark of what the properties ended up going under contract for.”

Those who did end up purchasing “starter homes” often had to compromise significantly on location, he added. Many successful buyers looking at properties inside the Capital Beltway, often near workplaces, moved to exurbs as far away as Loudoun County – about 50 miles northwest. The one exception? Clients who had some sort of help from a family member – an offer to co-sign a loan, or help with a down payment.

For Coffey, whose parents work as an elementary school teacher and a computer programmer, asking for that kind of assistance was out of the question. Back to renting it was.

Frustrated by the lack of options before her, it felt like all she could do was speak up about her experience in hopes that something would change.

So she ended up spending a Monday evening later that month on a Zoom with county officials and a few dozen Arlington residents, at first only watching as her neighbors explained why they were skeptical about rolling back the zoning code.

“What’s called ‘missing middle’ is not going to be low-cost housing because it’s in Arlington,” one man said.

“We need to do some more work before we allow developers to start doing anything,” added the woman who spoke after.

“This is not a jurisdiction where everyone is ‘Not In My Backyard,’ ” a third person said, “but we have to do it thoughtfully and properly.”

Ever since Arlington indicated it might legalize denser housing types, critics of the idea have descended on forums like this one, a weekly “open door” session led by county lawmakers, to raise a litany of concerns like these.

They said “missing middle” will put more real estate pressure on existing residents – particularly seniors on a fixed income – by increasing the value of their land and raising their tax burdens. (The county points to a program it has devised to provide tax relief for homeowners in that situation.)

They said single-family homeowners could face pressure to sell their houses to developers who want to replace their homes with triplexes, townhouses and more. (Karantonis calls this “luxury displacement,” because the homeowners could net a million dollars or more for the sale of their properties.)

They said families who rent single-family houses could be displaced by these changes. (Cristol said she recognizes the future for these households may be more of an uncertainty but notes that there aren’t many of them in Arlington: About 10 percent of the county’s single-family homes were renter-occupied in 2019, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.)

Most of all, though, they emphasized that the “missing middle” plan will not create new units affordable to the prospective buyers being priced out of Arlington: teachers and first responders who want to stay put; growing middle-class families who need more space; young professionals who don’t see the math working out.

In short, they said, it would not help people like Coffey, who was now looking straight at the camera as she prepared to issue her response.

“The places I can afford to live do not exist in Arlington. They are not there,” she told the faces on the grid, virtually all of them older than hers. “I understand the desire to try and figure out the exact right answers, but the reality is no one knows exactly what is going to happen.”

The uncertainty behind the plan is arguably part of what has generated so much debate. Its loudest critics have asked for more time before a vote so that Arlington officials can better study what exactly what will get built: what kind of homes, how many of them, with how many bedrooms, at what price point – and crucially, for which groups of people.

Jon Ware, who owns a five-bedroom house in Arlington, said the county has offered few clear explanations on how it determined who could afford a missing middle unit. “They are just throwing darts. There’s no analysis,” said Ware, who works with the slow-growth group Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF).

Erika Moore, an Arlington spokeswoman, said the county’s estimates for minimum household income were made in the spring using a 2o percent down payment and the 4.39 percent interest rate at the time. Planners estimate that buying the least expensive units would be affordable to someone making at least $118,000.

Ware ran the numbers for ASF with what he says are more conservative calculations: a 12 percent down payment, comparable to the national median; and an interest rate akin to the higher, 30-year average of 5.7 percent. He estimates that these apartments would only be affordable to a household making about $140,500.

“There’s a mismatch between what people are saying the problem is and what the county is offering as a solution,” Ware added.

On a Saturday morning late last month, about 20 Arlington residents sat in a circle in a community center rec room as they spoke one-by-one to share their thoughts on the “missing middle” framework with County Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey (D).

It was one of more than a dozen “community conversations” organized by county lawmakers, intimate meetings held throughout the fall meant to bring together people with divergent viewpoints on the issue.

Among the group of mostly gray-haired homeowners, the vast majority appeared to oppose it. For nearly two hours, the facilitator summarized their concerns in marker on a large white easel: “Parking spots.” “Not affordable.” “Gentrification.” “Tree canopy.”

With the meeting running well over its allotted time, Dorsey wrapped up by trying to point out one piece of common ground among the attendees: They all thought housing prices in the county had gotten far too costly.

“There is a desire to see that whatever is ultimately adopted addresses the price-demand mismatch,” he said. “It seems like that’s the area where everyone agrees.”

After he finished, one woman walked up to a reporter who had been allowed to sit in on the closed-door meeting. Some residents, she countered, thought there was no need for lower housing prices.

“If it’s too expensive,” she said, “you should move further out.”