The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

CSY at Forbes: Cities And The "Missing (Housing) Middle"

Examples of “missing middle” housing.  They represent many types of multifamily developments that can easily fit into predominantly single-family neighborhoods with little to no disruption of neighborhood character.  Source: treehugger.com
(Note: this was originally posted at my Forbes site on April 30, 2016.  Feel free to check out my work there.  -Pete)
If there’s anything that distinguishes today’s urban residential landscape from those of generations past, it’s the “missing middle” of housing.  Bringing it back would give cities the boost they need to more readily address today’s housing issues.
What exactly is the “missing middle”?  It’s the mix of housing types that are a step up in scale from single-family homes, but not large-scale multifamily housing development.  Think attached homes or townhouses, duplexes or triplexes, and small apartment buildings that hold anywhere from 4-12 units.  It’s called the missing middle because modern zoning has largely regulated it out of existence.  Today’s zoning ordinances have generally emphasized single-family homes at the top of the housing hierarchy, with the allowance of large-scale multifamily structures with twenty or more units perhaps being a secondary focus.
As you might guess, older cities constructed (or whose development character was locked in) before the spread of zoning ordinances nationwide since the 1920’s have a good amount of what could normally be called mid-range multifamily housing development.  This article by Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham, in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog last fall, shows how occupied housing units are distributed in building types throughout many major cities:

“(Washington, DC) is a city of row homes and modest apartments, which makes the feel of the place — and your housing options here — significantly different from what you’d find in New York or Chicago or Kansas City.
The above chart, based on new 2014 American Community Survey data on the characteristics of occupied housing, breaks down these differences. A quarter of all housing in DC is in rowhomes. One-third, as of 2014, was in large apartment buildings of 20 units or more, a share that will no doubt grow as new apartments emerge downtown and in Southeast.

Half of the occupied housing in Baltimore, in contrast, is in row homes (a whole lot of the unoccupied housing there is, too). Nearly half of the housing in New York is in large apartments. Detroit, a spread-out city now struggling mightily to shrink with grace, has vast stretches of single-family homes on par with newer car-centric cities in the South and West.

These figures tell us not just about the physical character of each city, but the potential they have for new housing as many places (Detroit not withstanding) look for space to fit a growing urban population. Higher density, in all of these cities, doesn’t have to mean Manhattan-style mega-rises.”

The reason the middle is missing is important.  Where it exists, mid-range multifamily housing development has been found to be very adaptable to changing economic environments, amenable to conversions of all types.  Their typical function has been to house young adults in cities once they’ve left the nest.  In doing so they’ve fulfilled an important function in a city’s affordable housing stock.
However, where it does not exist it causes problems for cities trying to adapt to a new era in urban living.  Unlike the recent past, where young adults moved swiftly from their parent’s home, to college, and then to their own single-family home, there are growing numbers of urban dwellers who are choosing renting over owning, multifamily over single-family development, and access over space.  Cities have responded to this by accelerating the building of large-scale developments within the context of modern zoning.  Much of what one sees happening in the trendy hot spots around the nation are a testament to this.

A couple of things are making this happen.  Cities are often looking to revitalize underutilized commercial districts with new residential ones, particularly where demand for new residential development is strong.  Underutilized commercial parcels are particularly attractive because they can become spots where off-street parking can be accommodated.  The other thing that makes this happen is NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) resistance in established and usually affluent neighborhoods who decry a loss of neighborhood character (and on-street parking!) whenever new multifamily development is considered.  Put those two together, and it becomes easy to see why towers with self-contained parking move to the forefront.

Cities should be able to enjoy the entire spectrum of housing choices, so they can appeal to the greatest number of people.
Because I’ve tried to advocate for policies that steer away from the concentration of affluence in cities, leading to more and deeper inequality, I’ve been called an advocate for zoning status quo.  Some people might even read my most recent piece in this space as a call for a hard cap on development in certain areas.  That’s not the case.  We need smart thinking regarding housing policy in our cities, and the return of the “missing middle” is a big part of it.

2 Responses to “CSY at Forbes: Cities And The "Missing (Housing) Middle"”

  1. Kevin Klinkenberg

    \”The other thing that makes this happen is NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) resistance in established and usually affluent neighborhoods who decry a loss of neighborhood character (and on-street parking!) whenever new multifamily development is considered.\”YES. Takes much education to overcome this bias against urban multifamily uses that were essential to the fabric of our cities.

    Like

    Reply

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