A unique zoning designation permitted a new duplex to spring up in the heart of the City of Falls Church, but the development may not be a one-off if proposed legislation to upzone all single-family lots to accommodate multifamily structures passes down in Richmond. The bill’s goal of increasing affordability remains unclear, however, it will likely face opposition to the visual changes to neighborhoods it invites.
The house at 517 Great Falls St. is soon to be 517 A/B once Michael Albrittain of Albrittain Group Realty completes the construction and puts the rental properties on the market within the next month. The lot became available after a two-alarm house fire burned down the home in March 2018. Albrittain purchased the lot in Sept. 2018 for $926,250 and, upon viewing the property’s details, discovered that it was zoned to allow a duplex on it, or a “two-family dwelling” in the City code.
“It was kind of an aberration. Not a lot of other locations in the City have that option,” Albrittain said.
John Boyle, the City’s zoning administrator, highlights just how rare the designation is.
The lot has to be zoned as R-1B, the code for medium density residential, which a chunk of the City’s northwestern portion along Great Falls St. is. Although the minimum lot size has to be 12,000 square feet, instead of 7,500 square feet. for a typical R-1B lot, and it has to have a minimum lot width of 100 feet, instead of 60 feet that is standard for medium density residences.
He hopes to court a long-term rental, and will pitch its proximity to the upcoming Founders Row development that’s a short walk away from the nearby Washington & Old Dominion Trail.
The homes themselves are 4,500 square feet with five bedrooms, four-and-a-half baths and a two-car garage. They also include granite countertops, hardwood flooring and stairs, a fireplace, a screen porch and a back patio, a large fenced in yard on both sides with an eight-inch “party wall” to buffer noise between the two residences.
Growing up in a development family, Albrittain learned that if he spent enough time on a project it was wiser to rent it out rather than sell it — especially since his price point for a sale wasn’t where he thought it should be.
Still, despite backing into the decision to rent it out, the homebuilder who has the duplex listed as “luxury” homes on his website doesn’t consider them affordable housing.
A different strain of thought seems to be budding up in Richmond. House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah from the 86th district, which covers parts of Chantilly, Herndon and Sterling, introduced HB 152 and its intent to upzone all single-family lots to allow duplexes and other kinds of housing structures.
In the bill’s own words, it requires “…all localities to allow development or redevelopment of ‘middle housing’ residential units upon each lot zoned for single-family residential use. Middle housing is defined as two-family residential units, including duplexes, townhouses, cottages, and any similar structure.”
Samirah’s rationale for this bill, articulated in a press packet obtained by the News-Press, is about using the market to achieve a social good.
“Not only would these housing types help alleviate Virginia’s housing shortage, but they are the type of units that are relied on by low-income people and people of color,” Samirah’s statement reads, citing the history of single-family zoning to enforce racial and economic segregation. “My bill to legalize middle housing is a rare chance to pursue equity by empowering the market rather than regulating it.”
There is a precedent for this kind of legislation in parts of the country. According to Politico, the Minneapolis city council approved changes to its comprehensive plan with its aim to abolish all single-family housing zoning last year. Oregon went a step further in 2019 as well, passing a law statewide where cities of more than 1,000 people in the Portland metropolitan area and those of more than 25,000 in the rest of the state will have to allow up to fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods, while cities between 10,000 and 25,000 would have to at least allow duplexes, per Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Emily Hamilton, a housing policy researcher at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, tells Reason.com that high-end areas where old homes are torn down and replaced by McMansions — such as Falls Church, McLean and Fairfax — could see developers pivot to building duplexes instead if HB 152 were to become law.
Albrittain said the finances do make sense from the development side. In his case, he’s building one less finished wall and accounting for less windows, but it’s still one structure just divided into two with reversed layouts.
However, Samirah’s logic is uncertain. Christina Stacy, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told the News-Press that it’s too soon to tell if a lift on single-family zoning will have any effect on an area’s affordable housing problems.
She said the thinking among housing economists is that increasing supply in the middle to high income markets is likely to have a positive effect on affordability at the lower end.
While it will take some time to see if the evidence will bear that out, ideally, Stacy continues, allowing for increased density would have to be paired with direct investments in affordable housing to really take a chunk out of the 264,000 low cost units the Washington, D.C. region is recommended to build by 2030, per a recent Urban Institute report.
In the here and now, Falls Church City Commissioner of Revenue Tom Clinton is neither for nor against the Great Falls St. duplex, though he did say that it is “certainly not workforce housing,” or the kind of home within reach of low-wage workers or even teachers and firefighters. But what is catching homeowners’ eyes is the potential for similar outside-the-norm houses to start dotting their neighborhoods.
As the bill continues, “Such structures shall not require a special use permit or be subjected to any other local requirements beyond those imposed upon other authorized residential uses. Localities may regulate the siting, design, and environmental standards of middle housing residential units, including setback requirements, provided that the regulations do not, individually or cumulatively, discourage the development of all two-family housing types permitted through unreasonable costs or delay.”
Taken to the extreme, builders could assemble duplexes in single-family neighborhoods at will. Albrittain’s testament to the favorable cost-benefit analysis of two-family developments makes it an avenue that other firms could find worthy of exploring.
Clinton, who is also on the board for the Village Preservation and Improvement Society, mentioned that other members enjoy their single-family aesthetic, and believe that houses should look reasonably like other houses along the same block.
He noted that nearby Vienna’s saturation of McMansions doesn’t come off as consistent or planned at all — a problem that could pop up with duplexes if they were to become en vogue.