By David M. Greenwald
The “Missing Middle”—some believe this form of housing is the key to unwrapping the current housing crisis. Recently the Terner Center in Berkeley released a paper outlining the ongoing challenges to the missing middle housing.
“Despite recent zoning reform successes, regulatory, financing, and construction barriers still pose challenges to making missing middle housing, with its benefits for affordability and sustainability, a more widespread form of housing development,” the report noted.
Missing middle “housing refers to a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types that are compatible in scale with single-family homes… but are less common in new homebuilding.”
According to the report, “The term “missing” is used because these types of housing have been illegal to “build in most neighborhoods throughout the country since the 1920s, even though they were once prevalent across North America.
“Housing developments exist across a spectrum of scales and forms, with detached single-family homes at one end and mid-rise to high-rise apartments on the other; the “middle” of this range includes smaller-scale duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts, and courtyard buildings,” it continues.
There are number of reasons why advocates argue for expanding the supply of this housing.
First is to loosen the “stranglehold” of single-family zoning which many believe has been used for “exclusionary purposes.”
This is critical to understanding the phenomena and the reform movement: “Although racial covenants were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948, the restriction of building types through the zoning code—with policies such as minimum lot sizes, parking requirements, and height limitations— allowed cities to maintain the widespread exclusion of households of color
and lower-income households.”
Further, “The high prices commanded by the resulting, larger single-family dwellings prevent lower-income households—including a disproportionate share of people of color—from moving into single-family neighborhoods, which also often have greater amenities and resources such as larger investments in schools and parks.”
The report notes: “The recent passage of local ordinances and state laws like California’s Senate
Bill 9 thus signal a desire to move away from single-family zoning in order to redress its racist origins and to increase racial equity in housing and neighborhood access.”
More than this the report finds that “the creation of missing middle housing can have a positive impact on the availability of more affordable “starter homes” that allow new buyers to enter otherwise competitive housing markets.”
This is critical to reversing a trend where smaller homes – those less than 1400 square feet – have decreased markedly since the 1970s.
“Missing middle homes are smaller than most conventional single-family housing, making them more affordable by design,” the report notes. “Since each home is typically smaller, more housing units can fit on a plot of land—reducing the overall land cost per unit. The facilitation of missing middle housing types can be a tool to meet market demand for entry-level for sale homes as well as rental housing as they can be offered at lower price points than single-family-zoned homes.”
Terner also notes that this would generate environmental benefits as well.
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that residents in multifamily and single-family attached homes in higher-density neighborhoods use about 40 percent less electricity and 50 percent less water than residents in low-density areas,” the report notes.
They also found that the construction of such homes in existing neighborhoods “can also result in residents living in places that are more walkable and result in lower vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The increase in density encourages transit agencies to provide more frequent service and contributes to more residents using public transportation and relying less on private vehicle usage, which accounts for 38 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
A number of states and local jurisdictions have taken steps to encourage the expansion of missing middle housing.
“The state of California has also been a leader in missing middle housing reform, having passed a series of new laws since 2016 to facilitate ADU growth,” the report notes. “The state has since passed even more ambitious legislation, such as SB 9, which enables homeowners to subdivide a single-family lot to build up to two new homes on each lot.”
A 2021 Terner Center analysis estimated that “SB 9 could enable 700,000 new market-feasible homes, with the caveat that far fewer homes would actually be built given other factors not captured in the analysis and the significant flexibility in implementation afforded to localities.”
In addition, Senate Bill 10, passed in 2021, “provides cities an option to zone for up to 10 housing units on a parcel located within a transit-rich area or urban infill site without environmental review.”
Despite all of these advantages and changes, “builders may still be facing barriers that make it difficult to take advantage of these changes.”
Terner found that simply changing zoning by itself is not sufficient to facilitate new missing middle housing. Design requirements must be “flexible to allow for more units on smaller lots.”
Further, “the economics of duplex, triplex, and fourplex development are still challenging. This dynamic was particularly true in California, where we heard that high costs in certain markets hamper project feasibility when the builder is limited to adding just one or two extra units.”
As a result, Terner makes several recommendations.
- States should go beyond zoning to catalyze missing middle housing growth at meaningful levels through other development code changes.
- Localities should reexamine existing land use regulations beyond base zoning.
- Localities should consider going above state baseline requirements.
Terner concludes: “Missing middle housing can be an important part of the overall housing solution, providing meaningful amounts of housing in existing single-family neighborhoods without significantly altering the look and feel of those places. Policymakers are increasingly interested in this development type, as indicated by the spate of new laws across the country meant to catalyze its growth. However, policymakers must look beyond “ending single-family zoning” in order to see this housing type built. Changing base zoning is unlikely to yield meaningful amounts of new housing without parallel policy changes.”