Missing Middle Housing: What you need to know to make it happen in your community

Mia Nelson
Wed, 04/26/2017 - 5:00pm

AARP and 1000 Friends of Oregon partnered to bring ‘missing middle’ conversations to Oregon communities for the second time within a year. This time, we were honored to participate in conversations in Springfield and Medford, with keynote speaker, architect and urbanist, Daniel Parolek, AIA. Mia Nelson spoke at the Springfield event and shares with us her big takeaways from Parolek’s presentation.

Daniel Parolek speaks to a full room in Medford.

Attractive communities like Eugene are going to attract growth. This means that there also needs to be a growth in housing supply, otherwise there will be constrained housing, which increases costs and pushes lower-income people out. In addition to the need for more housing, there needs to be a match between what people want and need, and what’s being built. People want walkability, more and more people are choosing to rent, and 30% of households are now single-occupant. By 2025 an estimated 75-85% of households will not have kids. These desires and demographic shifts demonstrate a clear need for connected, smaller homes. The kinds of homes that are found in the “missing middle.”

Missing middle housing is “a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.” The compatibility is part of the definition. Missing middle types never get bigger than the scale of a house. Row houses, duplexes, 4-plexes, courtyard apartments - they all limit ‘bulk’ in their design. The idea of missing middle is to not allow any building to get very wide, tall, or long. Because of this, missing middle housing works well for infill as it fits within the existing neighborhood, rather than overwhelming it.

There are seven key traits of missing middle housing:

  1. Walkability - transportation costs have to be considered alongside the housing cost. People need to be able to move freely between their home and community amenities.
  2. Lower perceived footprint - it has to look like and fit in with single family houses. High density does not have to equal big buildings.
  3. Sustains businesses in the neighborhood - Missing middle needs to achieve an average of 16 units per acre to support the local economy.  
  4. Code that is friendly to small units - If you have a code that only allows a certain number of units per lot, then you’ll get big units. A better choice would be to limit the overall size and let people have as many units as they can fit inside that space. How many units of 1,100 square feet or smaller on the market right now?  Probably not many, which means there is pent up demand for that kind of space.
  5. Lowered Parking requirements -  communities should require a maximum of 1.5 spaces per unit and ideally lower.  If you’re requiring more, then missing middle housing will not pencil. There is a need for on-street parking, and an ability to get around without a car through walking, biking, and/or transit. “You cannot be pro-affordable housing and pro-high parking requirements.” Studies show that rents increase dramatically with the number of parking spaces.
  6. Affordability by design - missing middle housing uses space efficiently, and with the other traits indicative of this type of housing overall, affordability is a natural by-product.
  7. Strong sense of community - this can be done because of a shared space within the cluster of homes, or just integration within the larger neighborhood. 

So, what can cities do to encourage this type of housing?

First, start with a “Missing Middle Scan” - have somebody photograph and categorize local examples of every type. Many people respond to the image, instead of the wonky numbers like FAR or density. Then, create a map showing which lots have more than one unit on them. Many people are shocked to find that neighborhoods they thought were exclusively single-family actually have many lots with more than one unit.

Next, recognize that zoning is a major obstacle. Form-based code is the most direct way to address the problem. Many times there are overly restrictive single-family zones, then it jumps straight up to a higher density zone that allows massively larger buildings. Missing middle is exactly that, the middle of these two extremes. It’s important to regulate not just height, but also depth and width, to ensure that homes fit within the neighborhood. Form-based code lays out what types of missing middle can be put on a given lot, it controls for the size of the building which offers the neighborhood protection.

At the end of the day, conversations about housing are really conversations about people. This is the housing that our teachers, police, nurses, retirees, and young people all rely on. Parolek lives in a 1000 square foot bungalow next door to a duplex. His friends live in one unit and their parents live in the other. Three local teachers live in the triplex on the other side of him. This is the community he want to be in, and everyone deserves the opportunity to have that same option if it’s what they need and want.  

To see the full presentation from Medford click here