Missing middle is a housing policy that seeks to reform the zoning laws in Northern Virginia to allow more housing to be built to complement the current market, which is dominated by single-family units and highrises. (If you want to learn more about the specifics of this policy, check out our breakdown here.)
As with many housing debates, it can be hard to determine whether missing middle is worth supporting. After all, isn’t more housing a net good? Based on the rhetoric of groups like YIMBYs of NOVA, you might think a fresh supply of varied housing would fix Arlington’s housing crunch. But based on the histories of the leaders of NOVA's current YIMBY movement, we should take time to consider what their real goals are; are their objectives really aligned with the interests of Northern Virginia's working-class?
There is a lot of citizen advocacy in the missing middle debate, and the most vocal group you will find is probably YIMBYs of NOVA (short for yes in my backyard of Northern Virginia), a citizen lobbying arm that seriously emerged in 2021.
The group was founded by local organizer Luca Gattoni-Celli, alongside co-founders Adam Theo and Dan Alban. The organization explicitly operates under the logic that more density leads to greater affordability, writing on its core values page that it wants to “enact policy changes that enable [the] construction of more and denser housing, including all housing types, in order to increase affordability for all Northern Virginia residents.”
Gattoni-Celli is a policy wonk who has been an active libertarian for a long time. He began his DC career writing for right-wing outlets like The Daily Caller, the Foundation for Economic Educations’s defunct magazine The Freeman, as well as for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that has long been criticized for being funded by the energy sector, the Koch network, and other business interests, where he briefly served as a summer research fellow. He has since worked for the research and consultancy firm Gartner, an organization that has been accused by a whistleblower organization of major fraudulent behavior (Gattoni-Celli was not assigned to the contracts where this occurred). Gattoni-Celli also founded the DC Libertarian Professional Circle, a networking Facebook group (on LinkedIn, he describes his role within the group as a “Benevolent Dictator & Co-Founder”) and of course, YIMBYs of NOVA.
Gattoni-Celli has received grant funding from Emergent Ventures, a fellowship program out of George Mason’s Mercatus Center. The Center has received criticism for its association with far-right figures like the Koch billionaires who allegedly have a direct say over the hiring of certain professors. Emergent Ventures, in particular, was launched partly by a grant from the Peter Thiel Foundation to advance neoliberal business ideas. Other grantees include people like Louise Perry and Fiona Mackenzie, the creators of a conservative feminist think tank, who have perpetuated transphobic talking points in the past, and Kathleen Harward, who writes children's books promoting classical market-based values. These are grants, in essence, being used to fund the pet projects of a billionaire.
In general, we don’t know a whole lot about how YIMBYs of NOVA is directly funded, but when we check out their tax ID on their website, they appear to be a chapter of the organization called YIMBY ACTION, a California-based group that has received funding from the likes of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Advocacy (yes that Zuckerberg). We don't know how that funding is diverted to YIMBYs of NOVA, but since the funding we do know of (e.g., the Emergent Ventures grant) is backed by far-right actors, it's fair to say that residents concerned about corporate influence should be skeptical. Similar tactics —of business interests banking the YIMBY position to spur development— have been used elsewhere, most notably in California (see a breakdown here).
YIMBYs of NOVA’s other co-founders also fall on the political right. Adam Theo, who ran a failed campaign for the Arlington County Council this term, made missing middle a chief part of his campaign, calling it a policy to help disenfranchised residents from being squeezed out by gentrification. But that rhetoric may be deceiving, with even the report of the missing middle study indicating that this is about increasing a type of housing, not about price.
For years, Theo was chair of the Libertarian Party of Northern Virginia up until 2021, when the chapter dissolved (though this move was contested by both local members and the national party). He now calls himself an independent after perceiving the chapter as moving too far-right, but he still identifies with libertarian politics.
There is also co-founder Dan Alban, a lawyer who, like Gattoni-Celli, started his DC career more or less where he is now. While attending Harvard Law school, he did a summer clerkship for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian nonprofit that seeks to protect “free speech, property rights, and economic liberty.” What that translates to, in reality, is defending against “government overreach,” a broad term that can mean everything from challenging drone surveillance to upholding school privatization to defending people in first amendment lawsuits.
There is occasional consensus between left and libertarian positions on legal matters, particularly where it concerns social policy and protection from government overreach. Dan Alban, for example, is very vocal in the anti-civil forfeiture scene (i.e., lobbying against the ability of police officers to seize property that allegedly was involved in a crime without charging the owner of a crime). However, the Institute for Justice also defends school privatization and has pushed back against tenant protections. The Institute of Justice likewise got its start with a grant from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. The framework they are operating against is one that emphasizes the marketplace over collective power and worker rights, something that seems to be influencing Dan Alban in the missing middle debate.
Lastly, there’s the current YIMBYs of NOVA president Jane Green. Her work is predominantly in the philanthropy space. Her day job is as the director of philanthropy operations for Food & Water Watch, an organization that has historically been very critical of corporate overreach.
In the housing space, however, Green has demonstrated a supply-oriented mindset for some time. She is a current board member of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the explicit purpose of increasing the “supply of affordable housing in Arlington County.” One of the Alliance's biggest contributors is AHC Inc., a nonprofit affordable housing developer, who, despite making affordable housing, still makes most of its money on rental revenue, which missing middle can potentially help make the space for more of in the future.
Given both these organizations' missions, it’s not a shocker that the Alliance for Housing Solutions has lobbied consistently for missing middle, doing everything from releasing videos supporting the issue to putting out positive research for it. They also engage in the work of directly interfacing with legislators on this issue. Jane Green’s position at YIMBYs of NOVA is an extension of this perspective.
When we look at the men and women involved in YIMBYS of NOVA, concerns arise. Missing middle advocates are operating under the assumption that supply and market forces are the most important factors in the housing debate, and if you are skeptical of that idea at all (it’s essentially Reaganomics), then that should probably start giving you pause.
I go into this point in greater detail in our breakdown on missing middle (see our piece here), but expecting supply alone to solve this problem is a big mistake. If the government does not pursue policies that confront the systemic roots of access and procurement of housing (i.e., public housing, rent control, prioritizing first-time buyers, a moratorium on new short-term rentals, etc.), you are just going to give the larger buyers and developers more rental and investment properties to swoop up.
Something that has become clear to me as a NOVA resident following these hyper-local housing debates is that the left is routinely written out of the conversation. The left isn't working to make housing a commercial product more affordable, but a guaranteed human right provided and made available to all. Opposition to market-based housing schemes also frequently fails to reflect a leftist critique of these policies. When Arlington recently announced that it had amended its draft to reflect public concerns, oppositional statements hinged on preserving tree canopies and limiting the number of units allowed per lot, not expanding public housing or limiting the number of new rentals developers could capture. Leftist housing ideas, such as prioritizing first-time buyers and a moratorium on new rentals, were not part of the debate this summer.
It isn’t intrinsically wrong to build more houses or to change zoning laws, but given the way our housing market is currently structured, we need provisions that prioritize the working-class's ability to live and thrive here without fear of eviction, displacement, or financial burden. Regardless of their intentions, the market-minded stewards of NOVA's YIMBY movement do not inspire confidence that this push will clearly benefit NOVA's working-class, those displaced by high rents, and the chronically unhoused. If we fail to move away from these profit-driven development models, the majority of Arlington’s residents will continue to be left behind and out of sight.