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Will U.S. Cities Design Their Way Out of the Affordable Housing Crisis?

Will U.S. Cities Design Their Way Out of the Affordable Housing Crisis?

Jan 18, 2016

By Amanda Kolson Hurley

Read More: https://nextcity.org/features/view/c...missing-middle


We used to build lots of in-between housing in this country: rowhouses, duplexes, apartment courts. In other countries, the middle is still the default. Britain is the land of the semi-detached house; the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark have dense, low-rise (and attractive) housing of various kinds. But the United States stopped building this way decades ago.

- The result, critics say, is huge unmet demand from millions of people whom our bifurcated housing supply doesn’t serve. Young families are priced out of new single-family homes, which now have a median size of a whopping 2,453 feet, but can’t squeeze into studio or one-bedroom apartments. Older adults want to downsize and economize without giving up their own front door or a patch of garden. Lower- and middle-income Americans struggle to pay climbing rents while new housing is increasingly marketed as “luxury.”

- If we had a richer variety of housing options, we might be able to solve a number of problems. First, it would give Americans more choices about where and how to live. Many people — especially growing demographic groups like single people and couples without children — would be relieved to say no to the large houses and luxe condos currently being offered them, and find a home or neighborhood they prefer. Restoring the missing middle would also increase the supply of housing in tight markets, putting the brakes on rising rents.

- Second, because these forms of housing are quite dense, they would help communities meet the threshold where transit and neighborhood retail become viable: In other words, they would foster the walkable, 24-hour neighborhoods that Americans are clamoring for, but often can’t afford. Sixteen units per acre is that density threshold, according to many planners. Missing-middle housing ranges from 16 up past 50 units per acre, enough to undergird lively, connected, pedestrian neighborhoods, and wean some residents off their cars. These neighborhoods would also have the virtue of being mixed-income because of their diverse housing.

- Third, if you favor traditional urban design, the missing middle yields the pleasant massing of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, rather than the spiky skyline of Manhattan (or the desultory sprawl of some New Jersey suburbs). To New Urbanists, many of whom loathe both modern skyscrapers and sprawl, the missing middle promises “goldilocks density,” as the writer Lloyd Alter terms it: not too high, not too low, but just right.

- It can be hard to visualize the missing middle precisely because it has been missing so long, left behind in the decades after World War II as single-family subdivisions ate up the land around U.S. cities. But the period between about 1870 and 1940 was the heyday of medium-scaled housing in American cities. In Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, two-flats (two-story houses with an apartment on each floor) multiplied; for that city’s Eastern European immigrants, buying a two-flat and renting out half of it was a rung on the ladder of social mobility. Rowhouses, which speculative builders could put up quickly and tailor row by row to different kinds of buyers, proliferated in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

- In Boston’s streetcar suburbs between 1870 and 1900, single-family homes were just one form of housing in a diverse mix. According to one historian’s analysis, the roughly 2,000 single-family homes built in Roxbury, West Roxbury and Dorchester during this period were far eclipsed by two-family homes (4,000) and “triple-deckers” (6,000). Bungalow courts, which cluster one-story dwellings around a courtyard in a best-of-both-worlds compromise between private and communal, spread across Southern California from the 1910s through 1930s. Then came the war, the FHA-backed mortgage and Levittown, and that was more or less the end of that.

- Generally, missing-middle housing is cheaper than average, but some of that comes down to age — it tends to be older and therefore in worse repair. In new construction, low square footage and (potentially) the lack of a garage or yard should translate to lower prices, assuming the location is not prime — which it is in Berkeley and some other missing-middle exemplars, partly an effect of the relative scarcity of such neighborhoods. In 2014, the median price for new, detached single-family homes sold was $284,500, and attached homes came in only slightly cheaper at $267,800. (The size of townhouses has ballooned, just like that of detached houses.)

- Given the costs of land, labor and materials, plus conforming with regulations, housing that is midscaled or midpriced — or both — often doesn’t pencil out for developers. In places where zoning allows for a large building, maxing out on height and footprint yields a better, safer return. As does going “upscale,” with nice finishes and amenities. The extra investment is small, but the rent or sales differential, Mallach notes, can be significant. As the middle has dwindled to a niche, financing it has become trickier.

- A paradox of the missing middle: Its biggest advantage would seem to be that it makes density less scary, even palatable, for owners of single-family homes who fear being crowded by tall buildings or hundreds of new neighbors. But many homeowners remain so immovable on the issue of local development that in-between housing doesn’t always go where it would work best as stealth density. That means it’s mainly going where it’s already expected (and zoned for) — and cities are losing an opportunity to create more housing and knit suburban-style neighborhoods with denser development nearby.


Historic bungalow courts used to be built often in Southern California, but the model has given way to single family homes. (Credit: Opticos Design)

Daniel Parolek’s definition of “missing middle” housing encompasses a number of housing varieties that used to be common in American cities: townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, two- and three-flats, and bungalow courts, among others. (Credit: Opticos Design)

In 2013, ISA designed these four 3-bedroom attached townhomes with rear yards and terraces in Boston. They are also net zero energy. (photo by Sam Oberter)

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