Dispatches from the Zoning Wars

The FWD #195 • 840 Words

Pro-housing advocates are making big victories in some places, but taking heavy losses elsewhere.

Earlier this week, we updated our Zoning Reform Tracker to show where some notable housing-focused land use changes currently stand. You’ll see a few setbacks, but overall, communities in Virginia and across the country are making important progress.

In today’s blog, we’ll highlight a handful of recent wins from here in the Commonwealth, but will also share a few examples of why we still have plenty of work to do.

Let’s start with the good news.

Richmond legalized ADUs and limited short-term rentals in one fell swoop.

Following a lengthy process of deep public engagement, revisions, and amendments, the Richmond City Council passed an ordinance to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built by right on any single-family lot in the city, with some limits. At the same time, the Council approved new regulations for short-term rentals (STRs), limiting them to just one per lot in residential areas—meaning if a lot has a single-family home and an ADU, only one of them can be rented out on AirBnB, and the owner must live in the other full-time. 

The new rules have many other provisions that the City hopes will keep STRs from eating up too much housing stock and make them easier to monitor as well. Earlier this year, the City Council also voted unanimously to remove minimum parking requirements for new developments citywide.

Almost 2,000 new homes in Pittsylvania County are on the way after a victory over NIMBY.

Pittsylvania County saw contentious debate over a market-rate project that included a mix of townhomes, single-family detached, and multifamily housing, as well as commercial uses. NIMBYs decried the project’s density and a misalignment with the character of the county, but board members approved the project, citing the opportunities and tax revenue it would create. 

“Unless we embrace some change, we’ll lose our most valuable asset,” Supervisor Bob Warren said. “We’ve got a great school division, and we produce talented kids. But we lose most of them, because we don’t have opportunities for them here.”

The project is said to help address the housing shortage in the county, but also address the forecasted demand from the Southern Virginia Megasite at Berry Hill.

Alexandria is looking to rethink zoning with affordability in mind.

Alexandria is following in Arlington’s zoning reform footsteps with its Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative. In addition to exploring Missing Middle zoning changes, the city is also exploring more incentives for developers to provide mixed-income housing in exchange for height and density bonuses. Community meetings for the initiative began this month, with a vote on the full proposal scheduled for November 28.

Now, unfortunately, here are some tougher pills to swallow.

Homeowners are pointing to restrictive covenants in an attempt to foil Arlington’s missing middle push.

The Arlington Missing Middle initiative has hit a roadblock. Legal challenges have come from residents who say that elected officials didn’t properly study the potential impacts of upzoning.  Residents are also utilizing racially restrictive covenants from the Jim Crow era to bar Missing Middle housing. For some homes, these racial covenants still exist in some cases and concurrently prevent the sale of homes to non-White individuals and the construction of more than one home on a lot. 

Stay tuned as we and many Virginia localities watch how this unfolds.

A Texas court cites deed restrictions to stop an affordable infill project in Austin.

Also in exclusionary property deed news, a judge ruled that Austin City officials violated deed restrictions when they tried to build an affordable home in the wealthy neighborhood of Brykerwoods. The deed restriction associated with the subdivision set the minimum lot required to build a home at 5,750 square feet. But the lot in question is only 4,200 square feet. The City’s efforts would have constructed an affordable home to be sold for less than $300,000 in a neighborhood where homes sell for over a million.

A Judge sided with “environmental” advocates to block the Minneapolis 2040 plan.

Minneapolis made headlines when it adopted a comprehensive plan which included eliminating single-family zoning in 2020, but legal challenges from environmental groups have stalled implementation. Three environmental groups have successfully argued in court that the city failed to conduct a sufficient environmental analysis for its Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan—something which the City argues comprehensive plans are not required to do. The judge’s ruling has forced a reversion to previous zoning policies until a lengthy study is conducted.

If you want to see a lot more good news for zoning and housing affordability in Virginia, we’re here to help. Our ZONED IN initiative is providing educational resources and events on zoning and housing affordability in the Commonwealth.

Start with our Zoning 101 toolkit. Then, consider attending our first regional Zoning Atlas Forum in Hampton Roads on October 13th, where we’ll dig into an analysis of zoning across the region. We’ll look at zoning’s relationships to housing affordability, economic opportunity, transportation, and more.

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