The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Arlington, Virginia Enacts "Missing Middle" Zoning Reform

The new policy isn't ideal. But it's an important deregulatory step in the right direction, making it easier to build new housing in response to growing demand.


Yesterday, Arlington County, Virginia (where I live) enacted "missing middle" zoning reform:

Arlington lawmakers voted Wednesday to allow multiunit residential buildings across the county, a controversial decision that shifts this Northern Virginia community away from the core suburban principle it was once designed around: single-family-only zoning.

The 5-0 approval of the policy, which had prompted months of explosive debate in this wealthy, liberal county, will make it easier to build townhouses, duplexes and small buildings with up to four — and in some cases six — units in neighborhoods that for decades required one house with a yard on each lot.

As housing stock locally and nationally has failed to keep up with demand, Arlington becomes the first locality in the D.C. region — and much of the East Coast — to loosen its zoning rules for more "missing middle" housing, an increasingly popular but often contested idea in urban planning. Governments both nearby and nationwide are weighing whether to follow suit with their own versions of a plan that had divided Arlington's 240,000 residents, who alternately said it would either diversify or destroy their neighborhoods.

In an October 2022 article in The Hill, I addressed the broader issues at stake in the Arlington "missing middle" fight and explained why people across the political spectrum have good reason to support this kind of zoning reform:

With housing demand booming over the last decade, the average price for a single-family home in Arlington has risen to some $1.2 million — unaffordable for most working and middle-class people. By abolishing single-family zoning restrictions, "missing middle" would greatly improve the situation, adding thousands of additional housing units to our stock. The fight over this issue is part of a broader nationwide struggle over affordable housing, property rights, and economic opportunity.

Arlington's housing crisis is microcosm of a broader national problem, under which zoning rules and other restrictions have priced millions of people out of areas where they could otherwise find valuable job and educational opportunities….

Exclusionary zoning disproportionately impacts the minorities and the poor, who are less likely to be able to afford expensive housing than affluent whites. Historically, restrictions like those currently in force in Arlington were often enacted for the specific purpose of keeping out Blacks and other non-whites. That's one reason why the Arlington NAACP supports Missing Middle. Liberalizing the construction of new housing is an under-appreciated common interest of racial minorities and the white working class….

Libertarians, conservatives and others who value property rights, also have good reason to support zoning reform. In Arlington and many other jurisdictions, zoning rules are the most severe constraints on owners' traditional ability to use their land as they see fit. Single-family zoning prevents them from building anything but one type of structure — even if the land could be more valuable and productive if used in a different way. Zoning restrictions are also a major constraint on economic growth and entrepreneurship of the kind that many on the political right seek to promote.

In that article, and in greater detail here, I also explained how zoning deregulation can benefit current homeowners in places like Arlington.

Arlington's new policy is by no means ideal. The version that passed only allows four or six unit  buildings, as opposed to the maximum of eight in earlier versions of the proposal. The Washington Post notes some other limitations:

The zoning changes passed Wednesday make some concessions to critics: Starting July 1, the county will initially issue 58 permits annually for "missing middle" housing, which is called that because it falls into the "middle" of the scale between single-family houses and high-rise apartment buildings. An annual cap would be lifted in 2028.

Home builders will only be allowed to put the densest structures — with five or six units — on lots that are at least 6,000 square feet in most cases and 7,000 square feet in others, further limiting where they can actually go. All construction must also adhere to the same rules regulating height, lot coverage, floor area and setbacks of single-family houses.

It would be better to dispense with these restrictions and instead allow property owners to build any type of housing they want, unless it somehow poses a serious threat to public safety.

Nonetheless, this is still a big improvement over previous policies. As the Post notes, it's a milestone for the greater Washington, DC region that other jurisdictions in the area may imitate.

Zoning reform is an issue that unites progressives and libertarians, policy experts across the political spectrum, and also such disparate political leaders as California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Virginia's own Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin. It's also a rare issue where Youngkin has common ground with Arlington's very liberal county government. Of course, zoning deregulation also has "NIMBY" opponents on both right and left, including such figures as Donald Trump and various far leftists.

Hopefully, Arlington's new policy will create momentum for further progress, both here and elsewhere.