The Missing Middle

By Michael Medick

Once upon a time, a young boy lived with his parents in the second-floor apartment of a triplex. Technically, it was a duplex, owned by his grandparents who lived next door in the attached two-story apartment. It had been modified to accommodate a ground-floor apartment; an elderly woman who was somehow related lived there. The boy’s best friend lived with his widowed mother across the street, in a third-floor walk-up above the corner drugstore.

The boy’s bicycle was his chariot to the world. Trips to the corner store for another pack of baseball cards were nearly a daily occurrence, as were gatherings with friends. A favorite place to go was “The Cave,” so named because it was in the basement storage area of a small apartment building managed by a friend’s father. Another hangout was “The Castle,” the largest house in town — a late-19th century Victorian with a multitude of rooms and secret places contained within.

The years passed, and eventually, the boy attended college, studied architecture, and experienced life in new places. What he found in those new places wasn’t what he expected.

 The missing middle

Maybe I have idealized my childhood a bit! However, the life I knew then and what I see nearly every day as an adult are in stark contrast. The broader world features fewer housing options, a lack of affordability, less sense of community, and multiple trips in a private car each day. Development patterns that I inherently understood as a child are not prevalent in conventional planning today.

The lack of housing that is attainable to a broad and diverse spectrum of residents’ needs is an increasing dilemma for many communities. Market demand exists for more housing choices that are more affordable, particularly in areas that are well located near jobs, good schools, retail, and more, and that provide access to multiple transportation options.

Daniel Parolek, AIA, principal of Berkeley, California-based Opticos Design, has coined the term “missing middle housing” to describe housing types that range from small-lot single family and townhouses; stacked townhomes; duplex, triplex and quadplex residences; courtyard dwellings; and small apartment buildings.

This stock of missing middle housing is what my hometown and many others were built upon. It provided the diversity of choices to accommodate a broad range of families, lifestyles and incomes, typically with greater walkability as well.

The demand for this housing segment is driven by changing demographics, housing costs, and a rise in the desire for walkable urbanism and closer proximity to neighborhood services. By 2040, for example, it is estimated that single-person households will exceed 30 percent of occupied homes. The large-lot, single family suburban developments will still have buyers; there will just be a lot fewer of them.

Walkable cities, such as Seattle and Washington, D.C., continue to struggle with affordability because vibrant, walkable urban housing that is close to jobs and public transit is undersupplied and what does exist has a very high price tag.

This phenomenon was clearly illustrated at a recent Urban Land Institute Trends conference in Washington, D.C. In lieu of rental apartments or high-rise condominiums, townhouses are one of the desirable missing middle choices for first-time buyers within the city; however, the average townhouse sale price is more than $750,000. With the requirement of a 20 percent down payment, most first-time buyers do not have the net worth, let alone the cash equivalent to invest in a new home. More choices are needed.

 Zoning to the ends

The reason these housing types are “missing” today is because most zoning codes have outlawed their construction. By definition, the term “zoning” does not allow for the blending of housing types because each use or density is zoned to its designated location. Current zoning regulations typically dictate specific housing types at either end of the spectrum, either large-lot single family homes or mid- and high-rise apartment buildings.

Thus, development patterns follow what is allowed by zoning regulations. If multifamily garden apartments are designated within a residential zone, it is easier to gain approval for that than buck the code and try to create variations that would develop a more complete neighborhood.

Still, builders large and small can add a variety of housing options into their portfolios, just as they have more than a hammer and a screwdriver in the toolbox. With more “tools,” a builder can develop a complete community. Missing middle housing types provide these options, and precedents exist in many communities.

Suburban infill locations offer significant opportunities and are well-suited to these revived housing typologies, converging with what the market desires and locations where demand is high. As one developer of attainable housing illustrated, the mathematics of the deal are pretty straightforward: “Because I don’t build conventional single-family houses, I get more units on less land.”

Even though land in desirable, close-in locations will cost more, his yield is higher because the dwelling units themselves are smaller and more contained. He builds a variety of housing types, including duplex, quadruplex, and bungalow courts, which sell at a premium, yet are much more affordable than a typical single-family home within the same community. Beyond lower prices, the benefits to the buyer are a closer proximity to job locations that are often on public transit routes within a walkable context.

 Avoid the ‘D’ word

Zoning restrictions and neighborhood opposition to potential increased density often need to be overcome. The fear of new development keeps many vital new communities from ever becoming a reality. Some people will oppose any new development, regardless of the need it might serve or the form it might take, because they don’t want any change.

Do not limit conversations regarding zoning approvals with planning boards or community groups to density; that is a losing proposition. Rather, reframe the conversation. Share examples of the range of residential building types available in places others can identify with and relate to — the places they love the most and probably grew up in.

This is the beauty of missing middle housing: It retains the scale and character of a single-family neighborhood, yet provides a density of 30- to 50-units per acre without the perception of high density. Integrating smaller-scale building components is the first tool to be used to disarm any opposition to new development.

 Enhancing transitional neighborhoods

That said, developers and builders interested in providing these housing types might find a better reception in locations that are more transitional in nature. These sites are in places that need investment and will welcome the opportunity to improve existing building stock by adding the correct missing pieces to the puzzle.

These locations are more apt to desire creative solutions to enhance the built environment. A builder utilizing missing middle housing types as the foundation for creating a complete community will gain a reputation for making good things happen and will be sought after.

Developing attainable housing types isn’t just suitable for the small builder/developer. Large-scale master plan developers can include missing middle housing in their communities. Liberty Park, a conventional golf course development in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, is planning to create a walkable neighborhood with a mix of housing types and retail establishments within an existing single-family master planned community.

“We see a real need for a variety of housing options within a walkable neighborhood center,” says Shawn Arterburn, the community developer. “Liberty Park will continue to be a vibrant residential community, but with a great downtown for all to enjoy.”


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