To increase housing, Fairfax County pursues alternatives to ending single-family-only zoning

Single-family detached houses in McLean (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

In their quest to boost the region’s limited housing supply, Northern Virginia leaders have explored a variety of potential solutions.

Arlington and Alexandria in particular garnered plenty of headlines — and legal scrutiny, in the county’s case — when officials voted separately last year to allow more dense housing in areas previously reserved for single-family detached homes, among other zoning reforms.

Fairfax County, however, has no plans at the moment to follow in its neighbors’ footsteps by eliminating single-family-only zoning, according to Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay.

Instead, the county hopes to increase and diversify its housing stock with more targeted policies, such as looser rules for accessory living units (ALUs) and workforce housing requirements, that can accommodate the different character and needs of different neighborhoods.

“Every county and city is different, and so, I’m not in a position to critique what Arlington and Alexandria have done,” McKay told FFXnow. “But we’ve been careful in Fairfax County to make sure that we can grow our affordable housing base and, at the same time, protect the integrity of our single-family neighborhoods…They’re in a different place [in their development schedule], and so, they have reached the point where they believe the only way they can address the ‘Missing Middle’ is to eliminate single-family [only] development. We are nowhere close to that point in Fairfax County.”

Size matters

The D.C. metropolitan area ranks 10th in the U.S. for “pent-up housing demand” due to a lack of supply and elevated mortgage rates, according to the National Association of Realtors. The tight supply fuels high prices that are expected to keep rising in 2024, peaking in June at a median of $935,930 for a single-family house, per a Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and George Mason University forecast.

Faced with limited space for new development, proponents of Arlington’s “Missing Middle” zoning changes and Alexandria’s “Zoning for Housing” initiative argued that opening up single-family-exclusive lots to different types of housing, such as duplexes and townhouses, will allow more units to be built, easing market pressures that have sent median single-family sales prices soaring over $1 million in both localities.

Though those measures didn’t exactly pass with ease, eliminating single-family-only zones in a place of Fairfax County’s size would be “a little bit more challenging,” says Jill Norcross, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Northern Virginia Affordable ​Housing Alliance (NVAHA).

“There’s just a lot more people, a lot more housing units and communities,” she said.

Of the 426,412 housing units in the county as of 2022, 46.1% are single-family detached houses, while 29.6% are multi-family residences and 24.2% are single-family detached homes, per the county’s most recent demographic report. In comparison, Arlington and Alexandria, respectively, are about 70 to 75% multi-family housing.

Parts of Fairfax County are dominated by single-family houses, which range from the mansions of McLean and Great Falls — the kind that Arlington leaders have said they’re trying to avoid — to older, smaller ranch-style or split-level homes like those found in Annandale or Groveton. Then, there are areas like Reston, where more than 80% of homes are townhouses, apartments or condominiums, according to Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn.

That variety means “a one-size-fits-all answer here is no good,” McKay says.

Impact of upzoning unclear

NVAHA, which recently merged with the Alliance for Housing Solutions (AHS), supported upzoning in both Arlington and Alexandria, but it’s too early to say whether those policies or other efforts to end single-family-only zoning in places like California and Minneapolis, Minnesota, have improved housing affordability as hoped, according to Norcross.

A report released last year by the Urban Institute found small upticks in the housing stock of cities that eased zoning restrictions after at least three years, but no reductions in housing costs were documented.

“We haven’t seen this immediate impact in single-family neighborhoods. It’s been pretty modest,” Norcross said. “…But I do think, in Northern Virginia, where we do not have a lot of availability of land to build more housing, looking at the zoning and the land use is an important tool that we have to consider if we want to get more supply.”

Though it didn’t draw the same level of media attention, Fairfax County used its own zoning code overhaul to relax rules for accessory living units — changes that McKay argues are comparable in impact to what Arlington and Alexandria implemented.

Adopted first in 2021 and again in May 2023, the Zoning Ordinance Modernization Project (zMOD) removed age and disability requirements for interior ALUs, which are now allowed with an administrative permit as long as no exterior changes are made to the house and parking is provided.

“We have opened the door wide open to what we think could potentially build a lot of affordable housing, but also potentially help keep people who are struggling to stay in the housing that they have…in that housing, and that’s been our approach to this issue,” McKay said.

As of mid-December, the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Development estimated that it had approved approximately 14 special permits and 58 administrative permits for ALUs since the zoning changes originally took effect on July 1, 2021.

A report on ALUs is expected to be available early this year, DPD Zoning Administrator Leslie Johnson says.

While zMOD faced some community pushback, including a lawsuit that led the Virginia Supreme Court to void it for violating open-meeting requirements, the county hasn’t received any complaints about the new ALUs so far, McKay says.

“What we haven’t seen is what all the people who were opposed to them expected us to see, which is they thought our neighborhoods would be overrun with apartment buildings and parking everywhere,” he said.

Civic associations keep eye on growth

Arlington and Alexandria’s zoning reforms encountered similar criticisms from residents concerned that upzoning would exacerbate traffic, parking and school crowding issues without effectively addressing housing affordability.

Pointing to their exclusionary history, Norcross says the homeowners’ associations that often represent single-family neighborhoods “can really limit or impede” attempts to expand housing, particularly affordable housing, in those communities.

The McLean Citizens Association, whose territory borders Arlington, hasn’t taken an official position on that county’s Missing Middle policies, but it’s concerned in general by how the area’s anticipated growth will affect infrastructure capacity, especially at schools, President Linda Walsh says.

“We have a small working group that is focused on the conversion of commercial properties (existing buildings or proposed zoning changes) to residential,” she said by email, noting that the county’s slated to issue a white paper on the topic in January.

The Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA), a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the area’s “semi-rural character and natural resources,” says it “has been monitoring the controversial changes recently adopted in both Arlington and Alexandria, over the objections of many residents in those communities,” along with housing-related state legislation.

“The GFCA Executive Board acknowledges that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution that will effectively address the shortage of affordable housing in fast growing areas like Northern Virginia,” the association said in a statement to FFXnow. “The GFCA will continue its work with our elected officials on housing initiatives when they are presented and provide feedback from the Great Falls community to help our policy makers develop, preserve, and revitalize equitable housing opportunities in Fairfax County through fiscally responsible and open processes.”

While the county has taken “great steps” towards improving its housing supply, including by allowing more ALUs and adjusting standards for off-street parking — a major driver of construction costs — the amount of time it takes for a development to get approved remains a challenge, says Aaron Wilkowitz, a Fairfax County leader in the YIMBYs of NoVA.

For instance, a redevelopment proposal for the West Falls Church Metro station in Idylwood — about a mile from where Wilkowitz lives — emerged in 2019 and didn’t get the county board’s approval until last June. The process was prolonged by a study of transportation infrastructure, which some residents feared would be insufficient, but most community members who testified about the project expressed support.

“Even just a small number of naysayers, a small number of local residents who oppose a project can delay it by years,” Wilkowitz said.

Variety of approaches needed

Wilkowitz says the YIMBYs would likely support ending single-family-only zoning in Fairfax County if proposed, as it did in Arlington and Alexandria, but right now, the grassroots organization is focused on advocating for housing in transit-oriented areas, where denser development is already planned.

“That’s really where I would focus housing first,” he said. “Only once we’ve developed those areas to the fullest extent, then I would start to think about…Are there some places that are exclusively only allowed to be single-family zoning, where there might be room for duplexes, triplexes, quads, etcetera?”

Ultimately, revising single-family zoning is just one tool available to local governments seeking to add housing. When it comes to affordability, preserving and building new subsidized affordable housing likely have a more direct impact, Norcross says.

Fairfax County adopted a preservation policy last year requiring developers to replace all affordable units in a redeveloped property, and a lower income ceiling is currently being considered to encourage more for-sale workforce dwelling units.

“We think the collection of things that we have is the right way to address affordable housing, as opposed to turning single-family neighborhoods into multi-family neighborhoods, and that’s just where we are in our land use of evolution,” McKay said. “We don’t have the density that Alexandria and Arlington have everywhere. We still have very rural sections of the county that we also want to protect here and protect the integrity of.”