“Missing middle” architecture could ease rents — and allow more Americans to build real estate wealth.
Could restoring the missing middle be a strategy for controlling gentrification? It seems Pollyannaish to think so; at this point, the supply is still so hampered by outdated policies. But the idea of the missing middle is catching on, notably in cities where the cost of entry to homeownership has become impossibly high (like Portland). I look around my neighborhood and see homes that remain attainable for teachers and social workers. Maybe Frey is on to something.
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.”
As of 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 63 percent of the nation’s 117 million occupied housing units were detached homes. Another 13 percent were apartments in buildings with 10 or more units. Only about 19 percent of America’s housing stock is composed of all the types in between, from attached single-family (aka townhouse) up to nine-unit multiplex. It hasn’t always been like this — as recently as 1986, 20 percent of all new single-family homes sold were attached, rather than detached; by 2014, that share had dropped to 10 percent.
If we had a richer variety of housing options, we might be able to solve a number of problems.