Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: With New Democratic Majority, Virginia Sees a Push for Denser Housing

Virginia will soon weigh a proposal to increase the legal density of housing across the commonwealth, making it one of a handful of states to explore a statewide zoning mandate in response to the affordable housing crisis. The bill comes as Democrats in the legislature seek to put a progressive stamp on policy in Virginia, although this bill may upend partisan expectations.

House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in suburban Washington, D.C., introduced the new bill and four other housing measures on Thursday, including a proposal to legalize smaller flats, known as accessory dwelling units, throughout Virginia.

“Northern Virginia is no different from other metropolitan areas in this country,” Samirah says. “It has a huge housing shortage.”

The bill would legalize duplex homes—townhouses, cottages, duplexes, and so on—in any place currently zoned for single-family homes. The bill doesn’t ban single-family housing outright, and it leaves questions about siting, design, setback, and other considerations to local governments to decide.

H.B. 152 arrives at a time when residents of Northern Virginia are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Amazon, which has promised to bring thousands of jobs to the suburb that the company helped to rebrand as National Landing. Cities across the state are struggling with a lack of affordable homes, yet they face pressure from homeowners and other constituents to support the status quo.   

“This is obviously a good problem to have. We’ve attracted a lot of people to this area that people find to be desirable,” Samirah says.

Oregon became the first state in the nation to ban restrictive single-family zoning codes across the state back in July. The Virginia bill would similarly enable more dense housing on lots that are currently reserved exclusively for detached homes. Samirah’s proposal is a blanket upzoning measure, with no carve-outs for special areas, a common feature of other state-level zoning bills.

“The idea is to require every jurisdiction in the state to allow a little bit more density, which has some big advantages politically, in terms of not requiring any one place to undergo big changes,” says Emily Hamilton, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “It’s a fairer way to allow more housing to be built.”

Such a bill would be a leap forward for the state on an issue that has divided residents elsewhere. Minneapolis became the first city to eliminate single family zoning last December, and leaders in Austin and Seattle have since followed suit—but only after fraught political battles that have stymied other efforts at reform. Upzoning at the state level is still an elusive target. California, for example, has looked at narrower bills, most recently S.B. 50, but the bills stalled in the legislature. Proposals in Washington state met mixed results.

H.B. 152 is almost certain to face pushback in Virginia, a state where Democrats now control the legislature for the first time since the 1990s. Housing and zoning don’t line up neatly with traditional partisan divides on other issues, though. Conservatives may wind up backing the measure as a market deregulation, while liberals might balk at a measure that could bring density to their doorstep.

Advocates for the upzoning bill say that changing local zoning policies is a necessary step to address the housing affordability crisis. Housing costs are extreme in the Northern Virginia suburbs near D.C., yet rents are rising in Richmond, Charlottesville, and other cities, too. By preempting the ability of local governments to set their own restrictive zoning policies, the state policy would circumnavigate the complaints of local NIMBY homeowners who want to block denser housing.

“If you want to make affordable housing easier to build, you have to change zoning,” says Alex Baca, the housing program organizer for Greater Greater Washington, an urbanism site for the D.C. area. “I don’t think it’s going to bring rents down overnight. Everyone’s not going to be able to buy a starter home. That’s not necessarily the point, although you can’t do any of that stuff without changing the laws.”

Conversations about zoning reform typically center on affordability or sustainability (since sprawl encourages driving), she says. But zoning has always served as a tool for wealthy white communities to maintain segregated neighborhoods. Baca says that getting single-family housing off the books is a necessary first step toward making a more equitable law.

“It’s a really good practice to not have those words in your law,” Baca says. “That alone is enormously powerful.”

When cities alone tackle zoning, the results can be spiky. Spot zoning changes often lead to market-rate apartment buildings going up fast in low-income areas, while wealthier communities are able to keep construction at bay. While residents might reasonably desire to keep the neighborhoods they love the way they are, the only way to build more housing fairly is to permit that possibility everywhere evenly.

“It takes politics out of the equation,” Hamilton says. “It’s not going to be a politically weak jurisdiction or neighborhood that takes the brunt of a bunch of new housing development.”

Other bills introduced by Samirah on Thursday would expand the powers of the director of Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development and give the state’s Housing Development Authority more tools for research. The state’s new budget proposal also gives a big boost to the Virginia Housing Trust Fund and introduces a new eviction prevention program. None of these efforts alone will make housing more affordable in Virginia, but taken together, Samirah says, they have a chance.

Whether the upzoning bill can pass the legislature is an open question. The delegate will have an uphill battle convincing more rural parts of the state to support a bill that primarily affects solidly blue Northern Virginia. Voters in his own area may not go for it, especially the home-voters living in single family home–zoned areas. On the other hand, the bill will be a boon to developers and home-builders, and maybe a free-market bill that thumps precious urban homeowners is something that Old Dominion voters can get behind. It won’t cost voters a dime.

“There’s people on the right side of the aisle who view it differently but still want to support it,” Samirah says. “We consider them indirect partners in the process, based on recognizing the political landscape.”

He adds, “So many different areas in Virginia have definitely surprised me with their level of interest.”

There are some zoning issues that the the statewide proposal doesn’t address. Local governments may still set restrictive setbacks, height limits, and parking requirements for properties. That’s a problem in Minneapolis: While the city allows triplexes to be built anywhere, by right, the city’s new law doesn’t touch codes on the size of homes, which means that the allowable building footprint might not easily accommodate triplexes. Preempting local jurisdictions from setting these rules would certainly make it easier to build housing, but it might cost the bill the support that it will need to pass.

A gentle statewide upzoning is a first step.

“There’s no silver bullet. There needs to be a combination of solutions,” Samirah says. “We think that, right off the bat, adding up to 100,000 units potentially into the market would be a really good starting point to control the problem of the lack of affordable housing out there in Virginia.”