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Virginia latest place to make single family zoning ban a political fight

A bill to allow duplexes statewide shows housing policy fights carry more weight as suburbs shift and housing crisis worsens

Suburban housing in Manassas, Virginia.
Streets of suburban homes in in Manassas, Virginia. A new law being introduced into the state legislature would allow for duplexes across the state, effectively upzoning the entire Commonwealth.
Getty Images/Glowimages RF

A proposed plan in Virginia to allow extra housing units on single-family lots has become the latest example of local zoning igniting partisan debate, underscoring how housing laws are becoming a bigger and bigger political issue in the midst of the nation’s affordable housing crisis.

Floated last week by Ibraheem Samirah, a member of the state’s new progressive Democratic majority, the proposal has already been attacked by Republicans, who say it will increase sprawl and traffic congestion, and conservative media.

The Virginia proposal would not, as critics claim, make single-family homes illegal or mandate any particular type of construction. It would deregulate housing rules and allow property owners to build duplexes in areas where they currently aren’t allowed, a move Samirah and his supporters believe will increase density in a state suffering from the nation’s affordable housing crisis. As CityLab writer Kriston Capps notes in a story about idea, “local governments may still set restrictive setbacks, height limits, and parking requirements for properties,” meaning they still maintain significant control over the size of the buildings that go up in these areas.

Does the reaction to the Virginia proposal suggest that upzoning and adding housing density to suburban neighborhoods may become a new front in the partisan political divide? It’s certainly an important one; the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives was a result of sweeping victories in 2018 in the kinds of upscale suburbs that would be the focus of these types of upzoning proposals.

But the sides in this debate don’t always neatly match party lines. Liberal California has struggled to pass bills increasing housing density, often due to strong disapproval from homeowners, while Dr. Ben Carson, the HUD Secretary, has expressed interest in pursuing upzoning.

In the wake of big upzoning proposals passing in Oregon and in Minneapolis, where proponents explicitly tied passage of the new planning rules to efforts to increase equity and diversity, allow for the creation of more affordable housing, and improve environmental sustainability, city and states have certainly begun looking at upzoning as a policy solution. California has also been a battleground for these issues; a number of housing proposals, including a transit density bill that would have overruled local zoning laws, were defeated this year, though bills to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, did pass.

Creating more “middle housing” in Virginia

Delegate Samirah, a newly elected member of the House of Delegates from a suburban district outside of D.C., sponsored the duplex bill, HB152, along with five other housing measures, including one to legalize ADUs. He predicted that some would find his proposal to be an example of “state overreach” or that it would create anxiety about neighborhood change, but he feels strongly that this kind of zoning change is necessary.

In a region waiting to see how the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 in Alexandria impacts local real estate prices and rents, housing affordability has become a key concern. Arlington County Virginia, a suburban area where the average home price is north of $600,000, has 90 percent of its land zoned as single-family only housing.

Samirah went on to explain his thinking via a Twitter thread:

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. Unfortunately, the kind of dense “middle housing” that could be built to alleviate the shortage is banned on most lots.

Because middle housing is what’s most affordable for low-income people and people of color, banning that housing in well-off neighborhoods chalks up to modern-day redlining, locking folks out of areas with better access to schools, jobs, transit, and other services and amenities.

Alex Baca, the housing program organizer for Greater Greater Washington, a regional nonprofit advocating for affordable and walkable communities for all, said Samirah’s proposal would help rectify some of the side effects of expansive single-family zoning, including increased segregation, adding more hurdles to build affordable housing, and creating more environmentally unsustainable communities. HB152 also does not contain any carve-outs or special exemptions, a more just and effective way to increase density, according to Baca, that would lead to small changes everywhere instead of massive changes in just a few neighborhoods.

As she wrote:

Del. Samirah’s bill represents a decently fair way to reform single-family zoning because it’s a statewide effort. Zoning can be used to manipulate the value of space; this system depends on adjacent space having some sort of varying quality. Smoothing this out statewide ensures that the baseline is uniform across the board. That that baseline is a duplex, and not a single-family home, is critical, because there’s no good reason for single-family zoning to be on any jurisdiction’s books.

Delegate Samirah’s proposal also makes it easier to quickly add density in the types of suburban districts he represents, which are close to jobs and employment. Jenny Schuetz, an urban economist at the Brookings Institute, says the proposal would allow for make land use more efficient and allow for affordable housing construction without subsidies.

As Samirah told CityLab’s Capps, the battle to pass the duplex bill will be challenging; rural voters may not respond well to a bill targeted at suburban districts, and homeowners, especially NIMBYs, may not like legislation that can lead to neighborhood change.

But as Samirah and his allies try to make their case, introducing the bills into committee when the legislature returns to session on January 8, they’re joining lawmakers and advocates across the country trying to eliminate single family-only zoning.