5 Ways To Make the Missing Middle Less Missing

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A July 2019 report from Bloomberg explores the decline in Missing Middle housing in the United States—and it turns out it’s more missing than ever.

This graphic from Bloomberg using Census data shows the decline in the share of missing-middle (blue) housing among all multifamily housing construction, even as very large apartment buildings (light gray) are booming.

The Missing Middle is a term coined by Opticos Design that refers to the whole spectrum of homes in between single-family houses and large apartment buildings. This includes duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, small-scale apartment buildings with a handful of units, cottage courts, townhouses, and so forth. Bloomberg finds that the share of new housing that falls into these Missing Middle categories has steadily fallen over the past few decades, and has hit rock-bottom in the last few years.

This is a problem. Missing Middle development used to be all over the place in cities built before the post-WWII suburban experiment. And it offers a host of benefits that make for strong, resilient cities. These include:

Missing Middle development fits readily into more locations, where there might not be the market for a large apartment complex (or a large enough piece of land might not be available). This can address the trickle-or-fire-hose problem, in which almost all of the development going on in our cities is concentrated in a small minority of neighborhoods.

Missing Middle housing is cheaper to build than larger and taller buildings, which require different construction techniques and materials. But the Missing Middle still makes it possible to distribute the high cost of land across multiple homes instead of a single house. The result is that a new Missing Middle home is often the least expensive kind of home you can build, and immensely valuable in cities with an affordability crisis.

Missing middle development can be phenomenally financially productive for cities; the combination of more people paying taxes and low infrastructure needs is a fiscal winner.

Missing middle development is a business that a mom-and-pop landlord can get a start in. In fact, it’s how most small-scale developers get their start. When we only build large buildings, only large corporations can have an ownership stake in our cities.

A block full of missing middle buildings makes for better urban design. It’s more granular than a block dominated by a single building with a single owner, and likely more resilient because there is not a single point of failure if things go wrong.

A neighborhood full of missing middle buildings hits a sweet spot for many people in which there are enough people around to foster a walkable environment, but still maintain a comfortable and appealing small-town feel. It’s the good old American Main Street Model.

 Missing Middle development is an indispensable piece of the Strong Towns vision for cities that are resilient, adaptable, and can pay their bills. We need to revive a culture of building this way, and we need institutions that will allow it.

Some of the biggest barriers to Missing Middle construction have to do with financing and federal regulation. A lot of city governments see this as outside their domain. But there’s plenty that cities can do, too. Here are five things your city should be doing, if it isn’t already, to help the Missing Middle get found again.

1. Legalize It. Everywhere.

The single biggest reason the Missing Middle has declined is that it is literally illegal in most places. This can be true even in urban neighborhoods that have a lot of duplexes or small apartment buildings: in many of these neighborhoods, zoning codes were changed in the 1960s or 1970s to prohibit the new construction of anything other than single-family homes. The older apartments that are part of the neighborhood’s fabric are grandfathered in, but can’t be replaced or imitated.

Fortunately, there’s a movement to re-legalize the kind of eclectic neighborhoods, with a variety of home types for ownership and rental, that we used to build nearly everywhere. The city of Minneapolis and the whole state of Oregon are prominent examples of places that have recently passed laws to make normal neighborhoods legal again.

2. Make Sure the Rest of Your Zoning Code Isn’t Putting Up Obstacles.

Even if non-single-family uses aren’t banned in your neighborhood, there are a lot of other ways that cities can make these buildings practically impossible to build. These include setback requirements and minimum lot sizes. In a classic article, Strong Towns contributor Sarah Kobos teaches you how to Kick the Tires on Your Local Zoning Code to figure out what is actually, practically allowed in a given location. You’ll likely be surprised by all the barriers.

Backyard Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) (which we’ll lump in with Missing Middle because they result in two homes on a single residential lot) also face a ton of barriers, sometimes including maximum size or owner-occupancy requirements. These should also be reduced; they create situations where something is legal in theory but nearly impossible in practice. 

3. Eliminate Parking Minimums

If you’re building a huge building, you can handle the cost of a big parking lot, or even a multi-story parking garage. You can pass this cost—which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars per parking space—on to your eventual renters or buyers. For a small building on a small lot, though, parking quickly becomes prohibitive, as it requires a disproportional share of the lot to accommodate it. And it’s rarely all that vital: in a neighborhood with missing-middle housing (as opposed to huge apartment complexes), existing on-street parking is almost always adequate for those who need space for their cars.

There is no reason cities should require building owners to provide more parking than their residents actually need or want. People are more than capable of figuring that out for themselves if you let them. This is why we urge every city in America to end parking minimums.

4. Streamline the Regulatory Process

It makes sense that a skyscraper or 200-unit complex would be subjected to a ton of scrutiny—opportunities for affected neighbors to weigh in, a vote of the City Council to approve any requested exceptions from the zoning code, the whole shebang. After all, these buildings can radically alter the environment surrounding them. Renovating a historic fourplex, though? Not so much.

Estimates of the cost that regulatory burdens impose on developers vary, but one thing is for sure: this cost is hugely disproportionate for smaller projects compared to large ones. You still have to pay the same application fee if you need a zoning variance. You often have to endure the same delays before approval, all while holding onto the land and paying taxes on it. All of this often deters would-be small developers or rehabbers from even trying. Cities should find ways to make the process easy for those who want to do modest projects.

5. Make “Assembly” a Dirty Word.

Somewhere in the course of America’s Suburban Experiment (which doesn’t just mean the literal suburbs; it means applying a standardized, large-scale, mass-production model to urban development and construction as well) planners adopted a particularly destructive piece of conventional wisdom. This is the idea that having small and/or irregularly shaped lots is holding cities back from revitalization and redevelopment.

We used to see oddball, triangular lots like this as opportunities, not obstacles. 

According to this conventional wisdom, if you want to court investment, you have to “assemble” lots into big tracts of land that can attract the interest of a deep-pocketed developer. Many city planners view it as a goal to facilitate this “assembly,” and it’s not uncommon to find planning documents which describe a preponderance of small lots as an obstacle to economic growth.

This is completely contrary to how we built cities for thousands of years. Small lots actually have a huge number of advantages, not the least of which is that they make the cost of entry to become a developer or entrepreneur much, much lower. And as far as the effect on the city’s own budget? For financial bang-for-your-buck, we’ve demonstrated that you can’t do much better than a shoestring business like Jimmy’s Pizza or Taco Taxi—generating tremendous value on the tiniest slivers of urban land. It’s not just about housing: these small spaces are crucial for businesses.

Planning and economic development guru Kevin Klinkenberg has written perhaps the definitive post on this issue: Savor Your Small Parcels, and Create More of Them. 

In a nation of Strong Towns, we’d see a renaissance of creative, entrepreneurial, small-scale developers adding value to neighborhoods all over our cities. Incremental development is #ChaoticButSmart, as opposed to the #OrderlyButDumb of the block-sized, 300-unit apartment complex funded by a big institutional investor. It’s less efficient. It requires some hustle. But the upside is there’s a lot more room for it in a lot more places, not just the handful of hip urban districts currently seeing an explosion of those big buildings.

The renaissance of financially productive places that we need can only happen when we get out of the way of the Missing Middle.


(photo courtesy of Opticos Design)

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