Housing Policy

Virginia Bill Would End Single-Family-Only Zoning in the Old Dominion

The legislation would allow duplexes on any residential plot in the state.

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Virginia is the latest state to consider sweeping state-level housing reform. A new bill would legalize duplexes on residential land statewide, making the Old Dominion the third state, after Oregon and California, to essentially abolish single-family zoning.

Urbanists have praised the bill as a great way to produce more (and more affordable) housing in high-demand areas. Some conservative critics meanwhile warn that legalizing two-unit homes is just the opening shot in the war on suburbia.

"Across the country, there is a shortage of affordable units that is putting a squeeze on working families and contributing to rises in rents for existing units," tweeted Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D–Fairfax), the duplex bill's author. "Unfortunately, the kind of dense 'middle housing' that could be built to alleviate the shortage is banned on most lots."

Samirah's legislation, H.B. 152, is pretty straightforward. It would require Virginia's local zoning ordinances to allow two-family homes on all land that's currently zoned to permit only single-family homes. Localities would also be forbidden from demanding that new duplexes obtain special use permits or meet other conditions that aren't also required of single-family dwellings.

The bill still allows counties and cities to determine setback, design, and environmental standards for new housing. It explicitly states that it would not prevent local authorities from permitting new single-family homes—they just can't outlaw duplexes.

H.B. 152 is part of a package of housing bills introduced by Samirah, including one, H.B. 151, that would legalize accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—sometimes known as in-law suites or granny flats—on single-family lots as well.

California passed a bill this year that allows homeowners statewide to build up to two ADUs on their property, effectively eliminating single-family zoning. An Oregon bill similarly made it legal to build duplexes on single-family-zoned land in cities of 10,000 or more people, and four-unit dwellings on single-family plots in cities of 25,000 or more.

Legalizing duplexes across the state could see some especially high-cost areas add a lot of new housing, says Emily Hamilton, a housing policy researcher at George Mason University's Mercatus Center.

"I think it will have the biggest effect in localities where a lot of single-family homes are being torn down and replaced by fancier, new, larger single-family homes," says Hamilton, citing the Northern Virginia communities of Arlington, McClean, and Falls Church as examples. "In many, or perhaps most cases, rather than build a new very expensive single-family home, we'd see those [duplexes] built as homes."

Building a duplex or townhome could allow a developer to sell each unit for less than a single-family home while still making more on the lot as whole, she points out.

Two-unit homes in high-demand areas would still be pretty expensive, Hamilton tells Reason. But they'd nevertheless be adding housing supply to these desirable neighborhoods, freeing up housing in less desirable areas for lower-income renters and homebuyers.

Supporters of the bill have touted other possible progressive outcomes from H.B. 152.

Alex Baca, a housing program organizer for Greater Greater Washington, told CityLab that zoning has been "a tool for wealthy white communities to maintain segregated neighborhoods" and that eliminating single-family zoning would be a boon to racial equity.

Samirah himself has called single-family zoning the modern equivalent of "redlining", arguing the kind of middle housing his bill would legalize would be more affordable to lower-income people and people of color.

He has also pitched his duplex bill as an environmental measure, writing that "upzoning would make it easier to cluster around environmentally-friendly transit options."

Some Republican officials and conservative media have seized on such statements to paint H.B. 152 as an assault on the suburban lifestyle.

Samirah's bill amounts "a power-grab to take away the ability of local communities to establish their own zoning practices…literally trying to change the character of our communities," Fairfax County Republican Committee Chairman Tim Hannigan told the Daily Caller.

That Caller article, written by Luke Rosiak, warned that H.B. 152 will "quickly transform the suburban lifestyle enjoyed by millions, permitting duplexes to be built on suburban lots in neighborhoods previously consisting of quiet streets and open green spaces." In subsequent comments on Twitter, Rosiak denounced "soy boy urban (central) planners" who failed to appreciate either the "nature" and"rugged individuality" that current single-family zoning enables.

At Vox, Matt Yglesias chalks up the conservative reaction to Samirah's bill to the left-wing language the delegate has used to pitch it.

"Rhetorical strategies designed to overcome left-wing opposition to useful market-oriented policies can backfire by provoking conservative opposition to them," writes Yglesias. "It's an example of how almost all politics is, at some level, identity politics."

That kind of talk, he says, might be suitable for selling upzoning to Bay Area progressives, but it's counterproductive in more purple Virginia.

It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure it's right, given how readily people of all ideological stripes have seized on the "our communities are under siege" line to oppose legislation that increases density.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, no one's idea of a conservative, has dubbed California's state-led upzoning efforts "a declaration of war against our neighborhoods." Activists from San Francisco to Seattle have fought density-increasing bills on the grounds that they would allegedly displace, not help, low-income people of color.

Sometimes conservative-leaning upzoning opponents will even adopt progressive talking points to argue against greater density. Beverly Hills' Republican mayor, for example, has called state-level upzoning proposals "a flawed Reaganomics trickle-down theory of market economics."

That's because self-interest, not ideology, explains most opposition to housing reform.

Local governments, whether controlled by Team Red or Team Blue, don't like losing power. Homeowners who have a financial stake in limiting new housing supply don't like to see land use decisions removed from a part of the government that they have more influence over.

If H.B. 152 were intended as a weapon to destroy Virginians' cherished suburban lifestyle, Hamilton notes, it wouldn't be a very good one.

"I don't think the bills would be an effective war on suburbia," she says. "It won't make sense to tear down single-family homes in the vast majority of cases. It's limited to very expensive localities where this makes sense."

Indeed, by preserving design and setback regulations, Samirah's legislation will leave localities with a lot of tools to thwart new duplexes and ADUs from being built.

But the bill's potential to add more housing supply, and to enhance landowners' property rights, still makes it a worthwhile effort. It's also a sign that sensible housing reforms first adopted by a few select states may be starting to go national.

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  1. It’s also a sign that sensible housing reforms first adopted by a few select states may be starting to go national.

    I admire your optimism. The problem remains, as you state, such “reform” will not have any substantive impact. The problem is not the type of P&Z rules. Rather, it’s that they exist in the first place.

    1. Yeah, fuck small wins. All or nothing, until we have 110% of what we want, affordable housing for all young people!

      Americans are so great.

      1. unaffordable* housing

      2. Trivial reforms may be better than nothing, but they’re still trivial.

        The good thing is that this is helping the conversation.

        The bad thing is that the conversation was immediately hijacked by Identitarianism and Tribalism. Like apparently all policy conversations. Blah.

        1. When I look at the area (and extreme NIMBYism) here, this seems like an extraordinary win.

          I don’t really give a shit about “the conversation” or what was said. All I care about is what percentage of my take-home pay is going towards the roof over my head.

        2. Yeah, but your life is trivial too.

          It’s not trivial to the person living it. In this case it’s not trivial to the person who has an affordable housing option that wouldn’t’ve been there otherwise. It’s not trivial to the landlord who’s able to get enough more income to afford better…whatever…for hirself or hir family.

          But overall it’s trivial. As is practically everything else in the world. As is practically all of history, unless you count as history only the minuscule fraction of world events that people take note of and remember. But life is not about momentous events, it’s about being able to do the things that to everyone else are trivial.

    2. Glad you anarchists hate zoning so much. Hope you enjoy the new neighbors who decide to turn their house into an artisan feed lot and gun range.

    3. People like to live in specific kinds of neighborhoods. If you prohibit single family zoning, people will just create equivalent CCRs.

      Unfortunately, existing homeowners lose value through this kind of state imposed reasoning.

    4. The legislation is a mess. Read it again. It clearly states that all local ordiances are in place UNLESS they’re found to be preventing middle housing from being built. Whatever the intentions, the language is highly interpretive and bound to end up in the courts.


      Such structures shall not require a special use permit or be subjected to any other local requirements beyond those imposed upon other authorized residential uses. Localities may regulate the siting, design, and environmental standards of middle housing residential units, including setback requirements, provided that the regulations do not, individually or cumulatively, discourage the development of all middle housing types permitted through unreasonable costs or delay.

  2. In my neighborhood of mostly single family homes, a house costs around a million, so now developers will build two family homes on these lots and sell each for a million. All this will do is double the number of yuppies in NoVa, just what we need…

    1. Sell out now and RUN!

    2. Oh shut up. We know that we need to increase existing inventory or those million dollar homes will simply climb to $2 million.

      Enjoy your million dollar home, by the way. I’m happy you can afford it. Now how about you stop looking your nose down at everyone coming up with market-based solutions to solve the affordability problem the rest of us are facing in the area?

      Or are you simply happy that you got yours so now you’re trying to protect your property value like a good boomer?

      1. You call it an affordability problem. I call it a demand problem: too many people want to live in certain localities. My solution is to pass a law to restrict the ability of people to move into those areas. That makes as much sense as restricting the ability of a locality to determine its terms of living. There is no right to an “affordable” home.

        1. A locality? “Its” terms of living? What about the people there?

          1. Patrick considers Patrick’s opinions, wants and needs to be the only ones that matter in the community.

            He’s the personification of the term “boomer.”

        2. Just because there’s no right to an affordable home, you declare that you have a right to tell other people where and what they can build on their own property.

          Funny how the rights all slant in a direction that benefits you and what you want.

          Fuck right off with that piss poor logic.

          Note how I said absolutely nothing about “rights” in my original comment. You’re the one affording yourself a right to tell other people what they can and can’t do.

      2. This isn’ta market based solution, it’sa government mandate to alter zoning laws that people voluntarily agreed to and relied on.

        1. Wut.

          1. When I buy in a single family home zone, I do so because I don’t want duplexes our high density housing around me. Ditto for my neighbors. For state government to come in and override our preferences is not acceptable.

            1. So, you bought a home that used arbitrary laws to intrude on what people can and can’t do on their own property, and now you’re whining that the arbitrary and destructive law got changed. Poor you.

    3. That’s not really how the market works. If a single family home is selling for 1 million who is going to pay the same million for half a duplex? The duplexes will invariably sell for less

      1. Not if you have the right kind of countertops and fixtures. The duplexes will sell for a million and the existing single family homes will double in value.

    4. I thought all the high density construction near Metro was going to solve your housing shortage. It will probably be like the high density built near the VRE with projections that they will take public transport instead of driving.

  3. So it looks like the fascists have determined they have won the war on individualism, and are moving on to the war on local governments.

    1. A state removing restrictions set in place by local governments … somehow abridges freedom.

      In the same manner, the dissolution of the USSR abridged the freedom of the Kremlin to prevent the SSRs from abridging the freedom of their subjects.

      Or something like that.

      Tell you a secret, bub: start with self-ownership and work the freedom up the chain. You;d be surprised how much statism gets overthrown.

      1. A state removing restrictions set in place by local governments … somehow abridges freedom

        Correct. The local zoning is like CCRs and people relied on it when buying their homes. For the state to retroactively alter this arrangement in order to achieve economic and social goal is authoritarian.

        1. Sometimes you get a crystal clear view of how financial interests can cause someone to contort so hard that they’re willing to violate all of their own ideals and “principles” … all in the name of their ideals and principles. This is one of those times.

          The original zoning laws were put in place to “achieve economic and social goals” ya ding-dong. What they’re doing now is no different, but since it doesn’t favor your finances anymore, you’re willing to do anything to justify being opposed to it while still trying to desperately maintain that you care about property rights. The truth is, you support everyone’s property rights up until it hurts your pocket book.

          The fact that your generation’s financial decisions are based on violating people’s property rights is your generation’s fault. Stop punishing the next generation for your mistakes.

    2. Local governments can be some of the most petty and inefficient.

    3. Conservatives have always been enemies of individualism, and lovers of local tyranny. Local zoning laws are local tyranny. This law helps to reduce that tyranny. That’s why conservatives object.

      1. Conservatives have always been enemies of individualism,

        Conservatives are no libertarians, but they favor individual liberty more strongly than socialists and progressives.

        and lovers of local tyranny. Local zoning laws are local tyranny. This law helps to reduce that tyranny. That’s why conservatives object

        Local zoning is the outcome of local political decision making and subsidiarity.

        People who want to replace subsidiarity with state or national level law making are the ones who favor tyranny: people like you.

    4. If you think city councils aren’t just as corrupt and bought-out as politicians at the state level, oh man you have a lot to learn.

      It’s better to leave land-use decisions in the hands of the landowners. No reason to let City Hall dictate everything you can do on your own property.

  4. Zoning, suburbia, single family is just so RACIST!

    Amazing how that term has been so redefined in the past 10 years. Anyone remember that chatter about living in a “post racial society” after BHO was elected?
    No way that was gonna happen.

  5. We’ve so run out of banning things that now we’re banning bans? The state is imposing its will on municipalities?? Whatever happened to micro-federalism???

    They should think of duplexes like mini-townhouses. Who doesn’t believe townhouses class up a joint?

    Zoning laws are the glue that holds our society together. And why I thank the Good Lord above every day that I don’t have neighbors.

    1. Your misanthropy shouldn’t trump one of the pillars of Western Civilization – the protection of private property rights.

  6. Next up the state dictates who will be the tenants in your duplex and limit the rent you can charge and also give squatters rights to the one’s that decide to stop paying the rent.

    1. “Free market mechanisms for sensible housing reforms”

  7. “Alex Baca, a housing program organizer for Greater Greater Washington, told CityLab that zoning has been “a tool for wealthy white communities to maintain segregated neighborhoods” and that eliminating single-family zoning would be a boon to racial equity.”

    Yeah, cuz every knows only whities live with just one family in a house. Marriage is probably racist, too.

  8. “Some conservative critics meanwhile warn that legalizing two-unit homes is just the opening shot in the war on suburbia.”

    Yes…a war on suburbia that has only existed since the federal government (and states too) have subsidized it for over half a century. Suburbia is fine- the subsidization of it isn’t. If you want your white picket fence and big yard out in the middle of a cul-de-sac, make sure you can afford it without huge subsidies.

    1. Evidence of these supposed subsidies?

      Our neighborhood is a net generator of tax revenue for the city.

      1. Our neighborhood is a net generator of tax revenue for the city.

        Not likely.

        Suburbs might have people with higher incomes, but the problem is they’re spread out. You have to build – and expand, and re-build, and re-expand, etc. – highways out to those communities, as well as maintain thousands of miles of road infrastructure to get people living there to work, school, whatever else, because mass transit isn’t efficient in the suburbs and everyone drives. You have to build and fund schools out there. You have to build out sewer systems and power grids and expand fire and police department coverage. And for the cherry on top, municipalities often offer tax giveaways to employers to build WalMarts and corporate campuses out there.

        Virtually every American city is built around this fundamentally misshapen dynamic, where urban cores generate net tax revenue that gets sunk into supporting the suburbs. That’s every state, too – denser areas support the rural areas. And the pattern persists, because knuckleheads like you think they’re carrying their own weight. Not by a long shot.

        1. A predictable but incorrect statement. As in many subdivisions, our local roads and utility hookups were paid for by the developer. Traffic patterns mean maintenance cost is low. The city has almost no other expenses: police, courts, fire, street cleaning, landscaping are very rarely used, and we don’t want or need public transit. Our subdivision is almost pure revenue to the city.

          Urban cores create massive expenses due to crime, public transit, police, cleaning, maintenance, etc. Except for buses, public transit is a complete waste of time. And while tax revenues are nominally high, much of that tax revenue is simply shuffling government funds around.

          “Knuckleheads like you” actually believe the fairy tale that cities are an efficient way of living; a simple look at cost of living and per capita government spending in cities shows that to be wrong.

          If cities were subsidizing suburbs, suburbs would be eager to join cities and cities would be eager to expel suburbs. In reality, the exact opposite is the case. For example, we have been trying to leave the city and the county we’re in for decades, but the city simply won’t let it happen. The same is true all over the country.

  9. At least their is a passing reference to these still being higher priced in those areas. Northern Va., Washington DC suburbs already have townhouses for with 4000+ square feet 2 car garages and prices that only a couple with 2 high incomes could afford. All the luxury but no yard maintenance.

  10. Mo money, Mo money, Mo money, Mo money.

    1. Higher taxes for municipal governments is the name of this tune.

      1. Even if this results in higher tax revenues, this is a net win for property owners in terms of their right to use their own property and progress toward the free market position of eliminating density and usage restrictions altogether.

  11. This is a great move for libertarians. Expanding the rights of homeowners and small landowners is everything Reason and its readers (theoretically) support.

    I’m surprised Republicans hate property rights so much.

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