Arlington County's "Missing Middle" is a Red Herring

Arlington County’s long-running affordable housing crisis has inspired a heated debate about “missing middle” housing policy. Proponents of this policy claim that the lack of housing supply is the main, or even the sole, reason for a lack of affordable housing. This group, which overlaps with the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement, proposes to make housing more affordable by developing more “middle-sized” housing such as duplexes, townhouses, and bungalow courts over high rises or detached single-family homes. It is not about the middle class, as some mistakenly believe, but about this allegedly missing supply of medium-sized options in the housing market.

Both sides of the missing middle debate have appealed to increasing diversity as a way to justify their positions. Proponents of missing middle policies have argued that more development will increase diversity by expanding housing options. Opponents generally fall into two camps: NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), who oppose new development because they think it would lower their property values or  fear living in more diverse neighborhoods, and others who  assume that changing zoning laws or “upzoning” will lead to an increase in housing prices, hurting poorer and older residents.

This campaign for more housing development sounds like a good idea, but experience shows that such “development” has often increased gentrification and wealth inequality. The nearby District of Columbia has built more housing per square mile than most cities in the country, but that hasn’t made housing affordable. In fact, stories about the exodus of working-class residents pushed out to the exurbs and beyond have risen alongside the shiny urban "renewal" of Washington by a wealthier, whiter base of residents. Decades of political leadership have failed to deliver truly affordable housing to the city's working-class, which is still anxious about its role in newly redeveloped Washington.

While it may be hard to tell which side serves which interest, the truth is that achieving affordable housing requires a lot more work than merely expanding the housing supply . Many leftists are active proponents for policies such as redistribution, limiting the types of people and organizations that can purchase and build property, and placing a cap on existing prices — something neither side of the YIMBY or NIMBY missing middle debate appears to acknowledge.

A Brief History of Missing Middle

In 2018, Arlington County held a series of roundtables called “How Should Arlington Grow?,” during which the county facilitated a series of conversations with residents to assess their opinions on growth and development in the area. These conversations, were allegedly held “outside of a formal meeting focused on a specific and unique project or policy” and instead were supposed to be a sobering series of conversations about where the county was at that moment in time. The Missing Middle Study emerged from these conversations two years later.

Missing middle would become a more formal policy in October of 2020, when Arlington County commissioned The Missing Middle Housing Study to assess the county’s housing situation. The study’s authors researched the county’s housing supply, zoning laws, and land use policies. As you can tell from the name, it was a study designed to produce a specific solution: increasing the variety of housing in the county. 

This process was meant to proceed in four phases to give the public time to reflect: background research (phase zero), community input (phase one), establishing a framework for how and where housing will be expanded (phase two), and amending zoning ordinances based on that framework (phase three). We are currently in phase two, which may be the most controversial part of this plan because defining what and where to expand housing will have repercussions in the county for decades to come.

Arlington County's flirtation with the missing middle idea is not necessarily surprising: governments across the country have been experimenting with these development policies for sometime. Private companies and individuals operating through coordinated networks have been leading these charges across the country: consider a slideshow image, pictured below, of the 2020 kickoff of the Missing Middle study. It's a familiar image, an illustration that describes the spectrum of housing in between detached single-family homes and high rises. 

Source: 2020 Missing Middle Kickoff

In fact, you’ll see this image in a lot of different proposals for missing middle housing across the country. The image in question comes from Opticos Design Inc., a “zoning reform” company owned by Daniel Parolek, who has been proselytizing about this concept for over a decade. In recent years, he’s had success persuading local governments to adopt this policy  —  which often translate into future contracts for his firm. Many governments have adopted this policy, most notably the state of Oregon, which passed a bill to promote missing middle development in 2019.

The push for missing middle does not seem to be an astroturfed movement (where, Parolek was given money from billionaire networks to influence government housing policy). Though, developers may not have funded Parolek’s rise, but they have certainly boosted his findings. Companies such as Zillow eagerly pushing articles such as “Residents Largely Support Allowing Missing Middle Homes in Residential Neighborhoods.” 

In many ways, missing middle is the latest urbanist trend that rebrands the status quo as the solution. Rather than redistribute wealth or prevent the landlord class from acquiring new properties, the YIMBYism of missing middle suggests that the lack of affordable housing is a supply problem that must be addressed by deregulation and supply-side support. The benefits that developers will reap from adjusting zoning laws will trickle-down to the rest of us. If that logic rings some alarm bells, it should — it's essentially a rebranded form of Reaganomics .

It’s no surprise that Arlington leadership is suddenly moving to adopt this cool new urbanism policy. Many Arlington County leaders have advocated for a supply-side solution to affordable housing for a while, even predating the launch of the missing middle study in 2020. For example, during her 2015 campaign, County Chair Katie Cristol described her solution to the affordable housing crisis as one that would “[help] residents with subsidies and increasing the overall supply.” That has been the binary from which our leadership has viewed this problem for nearly a decade now.

It’s doubtful that the results of the 2018 “How Should Arlington Grow?” roundtable were ever going to take us anywhere but a supply-side framework. The solution has always been to increase the supply, throwing in some palliative safety net programs that subsidize a fraction of those who cannot afford the luxury residences that developers are rushing to build.

As we shall soon see, the problem with this outlook is that it doesn't actually help when it comes to making housing affordable . At worst, it can make communities even more expensive and exclusionary. 

Unpacking Claims of Affordability

One of the central talking points around Missing Middle is whether expanding the supply will actually increase affordability and, consequently, diversity. The claim is that changing zoning rules will incentivize developers to build more affordable housing. “Density Means Diversity,” missing middle proponents say. Groups such as YIMBYs of NOVA have written on their core values page: “We will relentlessly pursue our goal of making housing affordable in Northern Virginia by making homes abundant.”

But a community can’t just expand access to housing and hope that will even out its diversity and affordability problems. Not everyone has the same starting position. Various manifestations of systemic racism have denied non-white people paths to homeownership, and as such many have been largely relegated to renting.

All to often, missing middle proponents — and YIMBY pro-build advocates broadly — often oversimplify the ways systemic racism have prevented Black and Brown people from building wealth and stability. It is certainly true that Black and Brown residents were denied access to the kind of single detached homes that now make up the majority of Arlington County. But these residents weren't just denied access to purchasing these units but were more importantly denied the economic tools that white people used to get that housing. This included policies such as redlining that denied access to loans, as well as employment discrimination, incarceration, and undereducation— a triage of economic paths were denied to non-white residents. As a McGuireWoods report mentions: 

“These consequences compounded over decades. Blacks were denied wealth accumulation through home ownership and access to federally backed mortgages. Black communities saw investment diverted to White neighborhoods and concrete rather than green space. As a result, Black communities experienced disproportionate rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and other health issues; life expectancy plateaued at abysmal levels; and property values plummeted.”

Both the Arlington NAACP and the McGuire Report recognize this reality, at least partially, recommending a slew of other proposals, such as a focus on homeownership for lower and moderate-income households. This is why the Arlington NAACP, although supportive of zoning reform, has been pretty insistent that more is needed to diversify the region than just missing middle housing.

These points are ones that missing middle advocates have occasionally admitted. Even official reporting makes clear to remind readers that the word “middle” is in reference to size, not price. As a draft of the framework tells us: “New housing types would be attainable for households with incomes from $108,000-$200,000+.” Not exactly the salaries of a lower-income family in this region

It's also worrying that missing middle policy not currently structured for these new properties to be “for-sale only” (i.e., lived in, not rented) with an emphasis on first-time buyers. Without these tweaks, wealthy landlords and developers will be able to scoop up these new units and turn them into rentals or investment properties rather than actual affordable housing options for Arlington's working-class.

Furthermore, there's no conclusive evidence that adding more housing alone will reduce rents now. (Reduced rents allow families to save for a purchase.) Some studies have shown that increasing the housing supply makes nearby rents more affordable, while others have shown that it actually increases the price of rent. Harry Zehner has broken down these conflicting studies in their article Why Socialists Must Reject The YIMBY -NIMBY Binary, noting that the cheapest neighborhood in Queens, New York City were the ones “most extensively landmarked, with little new construction,” while the ones with the highest prices had some of the newest construction. Similar findings have been made in the DC area as well. Places like Ballston and Tysons Corner have had a lot of housing developments in recent years, and rents have only skyrocketed

Housing and The Left

The debate over the missing middle in Arlington comes at a time when the larger socialist left is trying to figure-out its orientation towards housing. How can the new left exploit its power at state and municipal levels to reduce housing insecurity and material burdens shouldered by the working-class?

In the long-term, the left seeks to decommodify housing; which is to say, transform the provision housing into a human right – a necessity guaranteed to every-person regardless of race, income, or employment status. In the short-term, successful leftist housing policy will need to recognize and deal with the ubiquity of housing as a commodity provisioned by markets; this means developing policy to relieve the market stressors encumbered by the working-class while also creating a policy path that removes housing from market distribution systems.

In policy terms, we could point to rent control and public housing construction as policies that, when working in tandem, increase the supply while also limit private investors from capturing the market (see rent control, Vienna, Austria’s public housing, DC’s Green New Deal for Housing and the current Maryland push for rent control for demonstrations of the socialist left’s adventures into developing and executing housing policy).

These policies shatter the YIMBY-NIMBY dichotomy that missing middle advocates so thoroughly rely on. Public housing, as an example, is not a NIMBY policy — more housing is getting built — but it is done without automatically relying on private development, a factor too often lost in this conversation. Not everyone opposed to local YIMBY cliques are opposed to new housing. Instead, they care about who builds it and who has the right to live in it. 

Some missing middle advocates claim that there is no tension between leftist housing goals and missing middle policies, claiming that redistributive questions can be separated from production templates. But if we don’t pair the thing rich people want (i.e., more housing development) with the necessary redistributive elements, we are unlikely to reach redistributive goals in the future.

There is a long history of lawmakers promising more progressive or redistributive policy at a later date if only we pass the thing business interests want now; usually, that later date never arrives. We're already seeing this happen in Arlington County. Prior to missing middle, there was a separate Affordable Housing Plan in place that has failed to live up to its affordable housing goals. According to a DCist report published in late August, “Arlington County, which has done well with hitting overall housing targets, hasn’t built any affordable housing for people making under 30% of area median income in the last three years. [Anne] Venezia, the county housing director, says financing those projects is extremely difficult — and often becomes a trade-off [because they are more expensive to subsidize].” 

It’s great that YIMBY groups are theoretically on board with redistribution, but if they are not prioritizing it in tandem with zoning reform, then they are effectively setting the scene for an explosion of the housing supply without an expansion of who is entitled to receive that new housing — i.e., poor, working-class people of color. As leftists, this is what we are really arguing about when we push against missing middle policies. Proponents want a top-heavy, trickle-down approach to housing (i.e., Reaganomics), and we do not. 

The YIMBY-NIMBY Red Herring

The whole conversation around YIMBYism and NIMBYism is ultimately a red herring. Whether we change zoning laws to build more housing or not, failing to aggressively redistribute wealth so those who do not have property can purchase it will just give developers more investment opportunities and rental properties. 

Although both groups try to appropriate left-wing aesthetics to build local support for their proposals, YIMBY groups tend to be the most suspicious. There are some missing middle supporters who are fairly progressive, but tethers to neoliberalism are common. Luca Gattoni-Celli, Founder of the advocacy group YIMBYs of NOVA started his DC career at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute and is currently an admin of the Facebook group the DC Libertarian Professional Circle. Other founders include self-proclaimed Independent Progressive Libertarian Adam Theo and Dan Alban, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian nonprofit pushing for free market ideas. It's also worrisome how many local developers earnestly support missing middle, indicating that maybe there’s more of a financial reason behind this battle than one geared toward affordable housing.

Although the left isn't well represented on the NIMBY side either. Those most prominently opposing missing middle aren’t pushing for public housing or rent control but oppose more housing because it will “hurt their tree canopies,” not a very convincing argument when it comes to opposing the things people need to survive. 

As socialists, we need to reframe this issue away from mere supply and on one toward redistribution. We want to build housing, yes, but affordable housing that is built outside the realm of profits for private developers and landlords.

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