Virginia’s Land Use Committee unanimously rejected Delegate Ibraheem Samirah’s plan to upzone single-family neighborhoods across the state.

The Virginia House of Delegates Land Use subcommittee unanimously voted, 6-0, against two bills on Thursday that would have made upzoning and construction of accessory dwelling units legal statewide.

The first bill, HB152, would have allowed duplexes, townhouses, cottages or any other two-family structure to be built on land zoned for single-family housing. The second bill, HB151, would allow single-family home owners to have one accessory dwelling unit on their lot, which includes basements, guest houses and converted garages or sheds.

The bills’ author, Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-Herndon), said the Land Use subcommittee’s decision was disappointing and led by a “lack of information” surrounding the connection between outdated zoning laws and the current affordability crises.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah

“It’s a topic of national discussion right now,” Samirah told American University Radio. “I thought to myself, what a wonderful solution. One that comes at it from a market perspective … and offers a massive solution for the affordable housing crisis.”

A working paper published by Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania in December backs up Samirah’s assertion that there’s a direct correlation between zoning and affordability. The study, which relied on 12 years of data from more than 1,017 cities, found that cities with the most restrictive zoning laws also had staggering home price growth.

“High house prices, especially in America’s larger coastal markets, have spawned growing
concerns about housing affordability for middle class, not just low income, households,” the researchers wrote. “The potential role of local residential land use restrictions in helping to generate such high prices is an issue of growing importance in the public and academic spheres.”

Subcommittee members said Samirah’s bill would force the state to overstep local legislators’ right to determine what was best for their community.

“We believe that our local elected boards can determine what the best use of zoning is for their jurisdiction, really, on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis,” said Virginia Association of Counties lobbyist Joe Lerch before the vote.

Despite the resounding “no” he received from the subcommittee, Samirah said he will go back to the drawing board and present the bill again.

“It has risen to the state level because of the severity of the problem on the local level due to the inaction of local elected officials,” Samirah said. “Now it’s at the stage for localities to take action … until the bills get put up in committee next year.”

Last year, Oregon and Minneapolis passed headline-making reforms that allows duplexes, triplexes and other forms of multi-family housing to be built in areas that were once exclusively zoned for single-family housing.

Both areas passed legislation in response to worsening affordability in the for-sale and rental markets, as residents began spending up to 40 or 50 percent of their monthly income on housing costs.

Minneapolis will rollout the beginning stages of its Minneapolis 2040 housing plan this year, while Oregon is struggling to get large cities to adopt upzoning rules.

Email Marian McPherson

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