Skip to content

Missing Middle's future may hinge on Democratic primary

Precedent exists for election results to cause major policy switch

Even as Arlington County Board members prepare to push through changes that represent the biggest housing and zoning changes in a century, it could – in theory at least – be a brief victory for proponents of Missing Middle.

But that likely will depend on the outcome of the June 20 Democratic County Board primary, where two of the six contenders are hostile to the proposed changes, at least as currently envisioned.

If those two (Natalie Roy and Susan Cunningham) win the Democratic nods to replace the retiring Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey, and if they can get one of the remaining three County Board members to swing their way, Missing Middle (which county leaders are attempting to rebrand as “Expanded Housing Opportunities”) might prove to be one of the most short-lived experiments in county history.

That’s a lot of “ifs,” but it has a precedent: the Columbia Pike streetcar battle of a decade ago.

The $350 million transit project at one time seemed a sure bet, with four of five County Board members solidly supporting it and the lone critic (Libby Garvey) marginalized and in some cases ridiculed by the pro-streetcar faction both on the County Board and in the community.

But then, in a spring 2014 special election and subsequent general election eight months later, independent and streetcar skeptic John Vihstadt twice defeated Democrat Alan Howze. Then two of the Democratic County Board incumbents – Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes – blinked, changing sides and joining Vihstadt and Garvey to kill off the project in November 2014.

For such a scenario to play out on Missing Middle, Cunningham and Roy would need to come out on top in the (currently) six-candidate Democratic primary, which would catapult them into front-runner status no matter which Republicans, Greens and independents end up on the November ballot.

Could Roy and Cunningham, who are not running as a tag team but do seem to have some aligned positions, manage a 1-2 finish? With this year’s debut of ranked-choice voting, prognosticating is a dangerous endeavor. But it would seem that those two candidates, former NAACP president J.D. Spain Sr. (a vocal Missing Middle proponent) and maybe Tony Weaver would be the most likely to be in contention for the two open seats.

One veteran local-election prognosticator, who said it was too early in the season to attach his name to thoughts, said there was a possibility that Roy and Cunningham could walk away with victories.

“Given a likely turnout of conservative voters, coupled with ranked-choice voting, both candidates have excellent prospects,” the pundit told the GazetteLeader.

But another voice in the civic arena doesn’t necessarily view it that way.

“I don’t see the value in pontificating what happens if both Susan Cunningham and Natalie Roy win the County Board race,” said Adam Theo, a Missing Middle advocate who in 2021 and 2022 ran for County Board as an independent.

He called the scenario “political fan-fiction by people detached from reality.”

“Missing Middle housing is very popular among Arlington voters,” Theo said. “Opponents of smart growth tried to ‘stop Missing Middle’ with Audrey Clement, and she fizzled worse than a wet firecracker.”

(Theo, who garnered 5% of the vote in his 2021 bid and 10% last year, told the GazetteLeader he had not yet decided whether to make a third bid for office, but expected to have an announcement by the end of March. Clement, who won 28% of the vote last year, also so far is mum on her intentions.)

The Missing Middle proposal effectively would end single-family zoning in most of Arlington, allowing many lots to be covered by up to six properties. Proponents say the measure would give more options for buyers (although they have backed down from earlier talking points that it would make housing more affordable), while opponents predict a host of ills to community life and the county government’s budget if urbanization goes unchecked.

The Missing Middle/Expanded Housing Opportunities proposal has now made it through the gauntlet of county-government advisory bodies – whose members are hand-picked by the County Board – with plenty of discussion but, in the end, little formal opposition. The Planning Commission last week voted 8-0 to support an incarnation of the plan, its last stop before arriving at the County Board.

County Board members will hear public testimony on the proposal at their March 18 meeting, with final adoption more likely to occur on March 22. While some of the key components remain up in the air – whether there will be an annual cap on units, how much lot coverage will be allowed and the maximum number of units on a lot among them – it’s almost a sure bet that some form of the policy will go through. If the streetcar fight from 2010 to 2014 taught current board members anything, it is that delay can sometimes prove fatal, as it gives opponents more time to organize and public opinion to shift.

Roy, a Realtor by profession, previously had proposed a community referendum on the matter, an unlikely possibility given limitations on voter initiatives in Virginia. In recent remarks to the Planning Commission, she moved increasingly negative on the Missing Middle proposal. Roy called it a “haphazard housing approach that has no clearly stated goals or guardrails” and serves only as “a gift to developers.”

“There are no incentives or requirements in the board’s current approach for the private sector to build affordable housing, or homes for essential workers or family-sized units,” she said in testimony.

If the 2021 County Board race was a de-facto referendum on Missing Middle, as some contend, the results were somewhat murky.

Incumbent Democratic County Board member Matt de Ferranti, who while in general supportive of Missing Middle spent much of the campaign trying to avoid getting pinned down on specifics, came away with 62 percent of the countywide vote – good, but not great, for those backed by the powerful Arlington County Democratic Committee and its sample ballot.

Anti-Missing Middle candidate Clement, whose critics said she glommed on to the issue as a marriage of convenience, underperformed with the exception of some North Arlington single-family neighborhoods, where she led the field. That’s the first time a non-Democrat has won any Arlington precincts for County board since Vihstadt’s runs in 2014 and 2018.

Theo, who wanted a stronger policy than even County Board members are suggesting, trailed behind.

Turnout in the June 20 Democratic primary could be large, owing in part to the novelty of ranked-choice voting. Virginia does not register voters by party, so any registered voter can take part in the June 20 event.