Democrats in Virginia may override local zoning to bring high-density housing, including public housing, to every neighborhood statewide — whether residents want it or not.
The measure could quickly transform the suburban lifestyle enjoyed by millions, permitting duplexes to be built on suburban lots in neighborhoods previously consisting of quiet streets and open green spaces. Proponents of “upzoning” say the changes are necessary because suburbs are bastions of segregation and elitism, as well as bad for the environment.
The move, which aims to provide “affordable housing,” might be fiercely opposed by local officials throughout the state, who have deliberately created and preserved neighborhoods with particular character — some dense and walkable, others semi-rural and private — to accommodate people’s various preferences.
But Democrats tout a state-level law’s ability to replace “not in my backyard” with “yes, in your backyard.”
House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, a Democrat, introduced six housing measures Dec. 19, coinciding with Democrats’ takeover of the state legislature in November.
“Single-family housing zones would become two-zoned,” Samirah told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Areas that would be impacted most would be the suburbs that have not done their part in helping out.”
“The real issues are the areas in between very dense areas which are single-family zoned. Those are the areas that the state is having significant trouble dealing with. They’re living in a bubble,” he said.
He said suburbs were “mostly white and wealthy” and that their local officials — who have historically been in charge of zoning — were ignoring the desires of poor people, who did not have time to lobby them to increase suburban density.
In response to a question about whether people who bought homes in spacious suburbs have valid reasons, not based on discrimination, for preferring to live that way — including a love for nature and desire to preserve woods and streams — he said: “Caring about nature is very important, but the more dense a neighborhood is, the more energy efficient it is.”
He said if local officials seek to change requirements like setbacks to make it impossible to build dense housing in areas zoned to preserve a nature feel, “if they make setbacks to block duplexes, there’d have to be a lawsuit to resolve whether those zoning provisions were necessary.”
He wrote on Facebook, “Because middle housing is what’s most affordable for low-income people and people of color, banning that housing in well-off neighborhoods chalks up to modern-day redlining, locking folks out of areas with better access to schools, jobs, transit, and other services and amenities.”
“I will certainly get pushback for this. Some will call it ‘state overreach.’ Some will express anxiety about neighborhood change. Some may even say that the supply issue doesn’t exist. But the research is clear: zoning is a barrier to more housing and integrated communities,” he continued.
Tim Hannigan, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee — in one of the areas Samirah represents — said that urban Democrats were waging war on the suburbs.
“This could completely change the character of suburban residential life, because of the urbanization that would develop,” he told the DCNF. “So much of the American dream is built upon this idea of finding a nice quiet place to raise your family, and that is under assault.”
“This is a power-grab to take away the ability of local communities to establish their own zoning practices … literally trying to change the character of our communities,” he said.
He said suburbs were not equipped to handle the increased traffic, and “inevitably it will just push people to places where they feel they’ll get away from that, they may move to West Virginia to get their little plot of land.”
Minneapolis became the first city to eliminated single family zoning in December 2018, after a push by progressive advocacy groups promoting “equity.” Austin, Texas, and Seattle soon followed suit.
But those cities were amending zoning codes that have always been the domain of local governments. Oregon passed state legislation blocking local governments’ single-family zoning in July, CityLab reported.
It quoted Alex Baca, a Washington, D.C., urbanist with the site Greater Greater Washington, saying that single-family zoning is a tool for wealthy whites to maintain segregated neighborhoods and that the abolition of low-density neighborhoods is necessary for equity.
CityLab acknowledged that “residents might reasonably desire to keep the neighborhoods they love the way they are,” but said that implementing the law at the state level makes sure that those concerns can be more easily ignored.
“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,” it wrote.