“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 It seems Pollyannaish to think so; at this point, the supply is still so hampered by outdated policies.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.

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.
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. © Opticos Design - “Historically, as planners, we do a really good job of regulating conventional suburban development,” explains Parolek, who commutes by bike to Opticos’ office in a three-story building in downtown Berkeley (Walk Score: 79). “And over the past five to 10 years, we’ve figured out the larger-scale TOD [transit-oriented development].” But what about how to build a successful low-rise, mixed-use block, or a 12-unit apartment building? This is the blank that Parolek hopes to fill. He has given dozens of presentations on the missing middle around the country, including to influential advocacy groups like AARP, and Opticos is the lead consultant on Austin’s current initiative to revise its land development code. Parolek and Opticos define the missing middle as “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.” This translates to 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. Parolek prefers missing-middle structures not to be taller than two and a half stories — the better to blend with single-family neighborhoods and avoid opposition — but he recognizes the need for more three- and four-story buildings, too, which he calls “upper missing middle.” Generally, Parolek says, missing-middle apartment buildings have no more than 14 units, but he stresses that the height, depth and width of the building are more important for compatibility than the number of units. 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.

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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.

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