Preempting Bans on Duplexes Can Improve Housing Affordability through Property Rights

Testimony before the Virginia House of Delegates, Counties, Cities, and Towns Committee, Land Use Subcommittee

Chair Heretick and members of the subcommittee, thank you for again inviting me to speak. In my testimony on HB 151, I covered the problem of housing affordability in Virginia and the role that local land use regulations play in constraining housing supply and causing high and rising house prices. With respect to HB 152, I have two additional points to make:

  1. Allowing duplexes to be built where only single-family homes are currently allowed has the potential to increase the supply of housing in locations where demand for housing is high and to improve affordability.
  2. Preempting single-family zoning is an appropriate step for state policymakers to take.

Housing Affordability and Duplexes

HB 152 would give property owners across the state the right to build two homes anywhere that local zoning rules currently allow only one. Land is a key cost of building new homes in expensive markets, and allowing a second home to be built on an existing residential plot is a major step toward reducing housing costs.

Relative to other coastal states, Virginia localities have allowed a fair amount of housing to be built near transit stations on major corridors that are well-served by rail or bus transit. Transit-oriented development in Northern Virginia has made the DC area less expensive than the places where zoning rules are even more binding, such as the New York City or San Francisco regions.

While some Virginia localities have allowed mid- or high-rise multifamily housing to be built on their thoroughfares, they have generally frozen development in their built-out neighborhoods that are zoned exclusively for single-family housing. As a result, Virginia localities suffer from what’s known as “missing middle housing.” Missing middle housing includes any type of home that facilitates population density between that of a detached single-family house and that of a large apartment building. Missing middle housing is cost-effective because it allows multiple households to share the cost of expensive land, and it’s per-square-foot construction costs are lower than those of high-rise development.

Allowing duplexes to be built where currently only single-family homes are permitted is a market-driven approach to improving affordability. The neighborhoods that would see the most duplex construction are those in Arlington and McLean, where many single-family homes are currently being replaced by larger, new single-family homes, sold at eye-popping prices. If zoning were relaxed, many or most of these replacements would be built as duplexes, which would offer a more affordable alternative to new single-family homes while also adding to a jurisdiction’s total housing supply.

The State Role in Allowing Duplexes to Be Built

The benefits of new housing are dispersed. When new housing is built, it benefits the people who will live in it. It also frees up some less expensive housing in other parts of the region that residents of the new building are leaving behind, improving housing affordability for others in the area. Every time a new unit of housing is built, it sets off a chain reaction of households moving, and new vacancies create opportunities for several other households to move into housing that they prefer over where they lived previously. However, the inconveniences of new housing are felt primarily by those living right next to the new units. While many people can agree that Virginia needs more housing at lower prices, no one wants it to be built near them. This is why local governments tend to allow too little housing to be built.

When a state steps in to limit local land use regulations, it does not ban any type of housing. On the contrary, legalizing duplexes is a restoration of rights to property owners. Setting some limits on the extent to which localities can obstruct housing construction, such as allowing duplexes to be built where development is currently restricted to single-family housing, is not a move toward statewide planning; it transfers some control over what gets built from local governments to individual property owners, allowing the housing market to better respond to increases in demand for housing and improving affordability with no new subsidies.