YIMBYs and NIMBYs Can Meet In The Middle — And Already Do

Luca Gattoni-Celli
7 min readMar 4, 2022


Glebewood row houses in North Arlington. Most of the surrounding area is single-family homes, but there are also mid-rise apartment buildings and newer townhomes nearby.

The D.C. region, like most of the developed world, finds itself in the crushing grip of a housing affordability crisis. Until our region’s housing shortage is meaningfully addressed, each new unit will be maddeningly expensive. The only solution is to allow a lot more housing to be built.

Fortunately our region has a proven model for compromise that leaves everyone satisfied — or oblivious. “Gentle density” surrounds us in pockets of townhomes and low-rise apartments that blend right in. Row houses near the National Zoo are a beautiful example, but there are many others in Northern Virginia, the focus of this essay. These neighborhoods tend to predate auto-centric development, letting residents walk to shops, dining, parks, and transit. They manifestly bother no one and should be permitted everywhere.

My wife lived in a Del Ray, Alexandria quadplex exactly like the one on the left in this photo — technically part of a garden apartment block — when we met six years ago. I moved in with her when we married, and we welcomed our first child home there. Single-family homes are down the street and on the surrounding streets.

Despite prominent examples of medium-density “missing middle” housing in our region, it is in fact rare. As this 2018 map roughly depicts, the lion’s share of metro D.C.’s residential land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes. The modest number of multi-family homes in those zones are grandfathered in and would be almost impossible to build now. To the extent we sincerely care to solve the housing crisis, that must change. But I am extremely confident the change can and will happen in a manner that gives everyone what they want. I have spent almost ten years living in the D.C. region, most of them in wonderful medium-density homes in Northern Virginia. I like suburban living.

Some individuals sincerely do want to drive everywhere and live in a big house with a big yard, at a distance from neighbors. Historian Ken Jackson’s masterful Crabgrass Frontier documents that Americans of means have moved to suburbs from crowded, noisy, dirty cities since motorized transport’s inception. Of course we now have sanitation and germ theory, so cities no longer have chronic epidemics. And most noise and pollution in today’s cities come from cars and trucks. But not everyone wants car-dependent sprawl. Plus that development pattern cannot scale to meet the demand for housing.

Last autumn at Alexandria’s West End Farmers Market, I saw someone tabling with signs that read, “Take Back Seminary Road.” I live near Seminary, which received a controversial yet to me nearly imperceptible road diet. I had recently founded YIMBYs of Northern Virginia (yes in my backyard) and wished to understand their concerns. Within twenty seconds this individual told me, “They want to take all of the cars away, like in the Soviet Union.” The comment made me reflect on catastrophic thinking about dense development and “social engineering.”

Personally I enjoy driving and want it to remain convenient. A 2019 Washington Post survey found nearly 80% of D.C.-area commuters drove. Metro ridership collapsed in 2020 and is far from recovering. Wholesale driving bans are simply not a possibility. In my view, if people want to be able to drive, they should. And all of us should also have other viable options to get around.

As for medium-density housing, fear of it seems naïve based on my own experience. My wife and I both lived in fourplexes, also called quadplexes, when we met six years ago. My apartment was near Colonial Village in Arlington, hers in Del Ray, Alexandria. I moved in with her when we married. These structures are, I cannot stress enough, remarkably unremarkable, with zero negative “impact” on “character” or “livability.” Now we live in a townhome in Alexandria West. We love knowing our neighbors, even more than the fact that we cannot hear them through our shared walls.

A townhome in the Glebewood neighborhood built in 1970 on N Abingdon Street. The homes in this cul-de-sac have two-car garages, functional balconies, unique architecture, and a well-used, beautiful shared lawn space.

Neighborhoods such as these are highly desirable, particularly Del Ray, which my wife misses dearly. Fairlington is another wonderful example. Cameron Station is a newer dense, mixed-use residential development in Alexandria. These are quiet, safe, pleasant places to be, with tons of trees to boot. Please visit them if medium-density housing concerns you. Duplexes and low-rises will not “destroy the suburbs.” As I highlighted in a previous essay, the part of Del Ray we lived in is much denser than most suburbs, at more than 10,000 residents per square mile.

Density makes Del Ray and those other neighborhoods more, not less, desirable. But walkable neighborhoods are expensive, because they are artificially scarce. Aurora Highlands is a more conventional single-family neighborhood dotted with duplexes and other medium-density homes that could not be legally built today, like this triplex with an ADU in the back:

These four homes sit on one lot a stone’s throw away from Pentagon City, Arlington.

That triplex is about as large as new homes going up on old, similarly sized lots throughout Arlington’s single-family neighborhoods. Teardowns are not evil, but barring every other form of new home construction arguably is during a shortage. Greater housing density will be much gentler and better for everyone spread across our entire region, not concentrated in a few spots.

Defenders of single-family zoning have some legitimate concerns, which should be addressed but are not credible arguments against denser housing or car alternatives. They often boil down to fear that greater density will make various current problems worse. Our area must act to relieve school overcrowding, for example, regardless of whether more students move here.

Congested roads are an argument for, not against, viable alternatives to driving. The consensus solution among economists and transportation planners, with the highest effectiveness and lowest cost, is congestion pricing, which unfortunately would provoke a huge backlash. Additional road capacity may only be filled by more traffic due to induced demand. The vast road expansions needed to truly eliminate traffic would provoke a huge backlash too. “We could pave the earth,” jokes a veteran urbanist acquaintance. So traffic is a Catch-22. Solving it is tricky but absolutely does not depend on housing scarcity. On the contrary, denser housing would help solve a number of existential problems we face.

I lived in a quadplex in Court House, Arlington just like this one when I met my wife six years ago. I loved being able to walk to my favorite local business, Pho 75 on Wilson Boulevard, which I strongly urge you to try!

“What about parking?” I cannot do justice to the high cost of free parking. Where parking is scarce, it is free or otherwise unrestricted. There is a tradeoff between free parking and abundant parking, as with any other scarce resource. And to me, parking anxiety illustrates how systematically neglected driving alternatives have been. We inhabit a sort of false consciousness that driving is the only way to get around, and frankly that sprawl is the only alternative to America’s institutionally shaky cities.

A surprisingly large share of car trips are only a few miles and would lend themselves to cycling, were our infrastructure passable. I recently rode my e-bike to the bank to deposit the cheque we got for selling one of our cars. The employee who assisted me said many bank patrons bike there. Many of them are working class and live in nearby apartment towers (which I enjoy living close to). If you think as I once did that “no one will use” new bike paths and protected lanes, visit Gravelly Point or the WO&D Trail. You personally do not have to bike more. Many people would, though, if they felt it were safe to do so. I would love for my children to safely bike near our home.

We have spent a lot of time visiting Fairlington, a dense neighborhood in South Arlington of townhomes and garden apartments. It has a mature tree canopy and a large, popular, up-to-date playground.

The social engineering happened decades ago, when most residential areas were restricted to single-family homes and transportation infrastructure was dedicated almost entirely to driving. The housing crisis presents an exciting opportunity for more of us to live in the kinds of neighborhoods where people actually want to spend time and community is not a cliché. In exchange for little to no inconvenience, I offer density skeptics and their loved ones less risk of asthma and dementia, not to mention less climate change. If nothing else, I do hope you now at least understand why I mean it when I say, “Yes in my backyard.”

Luca Gattoni-Celli resides in Alexandria with his wife and children and has lived in the D.C. region since 2012. He is the founder of YIMBYs of Northern Virginia. To get involved with these issues in the D.C. region, you can join Facebook groups for YIMBYs of NoVA, DC YIMBYs or YIMBY MoCo depending on where you live.



Luca Gattoni-Celli

Recovered federal tax reporter currently working as a management consultant. Catholic, husband, father, student of economics. SDG