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Breathing Life into Urban Growth

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books and culture

Breathing Life into Urban Growth

A new book makes a detailed case for building “missing middle” housing. November 24, 2021
Economy, finance, and budgets

Missing Middle Housing: Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis, by Daniel G. Parolek (Island Press, 328 pp., $40)

When Nero’s opulent Domus Aurea was ready for occupancy, the emperor offered an unusual assessment. “At last,” he declaimed, surveying the resplendent frescos, soaring columns, and fixtures glinting with gold leaf, “I can begin to live like a human being.” Today, in this nation’s high-priced real estate markets, many less exacting human beings might share his sentiment—if only they could afford adequate space.

As housing costs have risen in dynamic regions, some blame antiquated land-use policies for creating a stubborn gap between what residents can afford and what builders may supply. There is merit to this claim: rules enacted to shape suburban development after World War II continue to prescribe a limited range of spaces, on the ground, in much of the country. These spaces are often scarce and separated into tidy geographic zones: houses here, offices there, and retail down the way. Looking back, one might think that American planners of the postwar years were trying to squeeze the rich and varied patterns of civilization into the form of a midcentury department store.

For a time, aging towns and cities served as a collective pressure valve—accommodating the parts of life that did not fit neatly onto a technical zoning map. The rough fabric of older places still reflected the layered human tinkering of past generations. It offered unique spaces—apartments over storefronts, workshops, or warehouses—that a narrowing real-estate industry would not build. This legacy allowed small, efficient living spaces affordable at market rates to persist in central cities through the late twentieth century. The slack in old neighborhoods did not last, however. The population continued to grow. People migrated. Places were rediscovered. Buildings became full again. These are the roots of today’s housing crisis.

Last year, amid a wave of Covid-inspired pessimism about the future of cities, Daniel Parolek, a California urban planner, published Missing Middle Housing. His title describes a range of alternate, midscale housing options—a so-called missing middle, situated between detached, single-family houses and large apartment blocks. Parolek wants us to remember that this band of housing once formed an integral part of many neighborhoods. Yet today, new units like these are scarce. Parolek’s analysis focuses on the present, as it should be for this type of book. Missing Middle Housing is a guide to what could be. Yet he recalls recent history by identifying the rise of regulatory barriers to the construction of midscale housing and pointing out how midscale buildings blend seamlessly into older neighborhoods.

The heart of the book describes several categories of midscale housing. Duplexes, triple-deckers, townhouses, two-family homes, and simple row houses are among the familiar examples. For each, the author defines the type, describes its design, and sketches its typical layout on a parcel. He also outlines basic regulatory parameters that, if adopted, could shape such development going forward. A valuable aspect of this material is how it provides hard numbers to counter outdated notions: giving dimensions for building footprints and associated lots, providing units per acre, and showing scenarios with and without off-street parking. These data help to challenge assumptions that certain building types or unit-counts are intrinsically incompatible with the fabric of low-key, stable neighborhoods.

Parolek follows his discussion of housing types with case studies. Supported by well-developed pro formas, site plans, photographs, 3D drawings, and project histories, this next sweep of pages illustrates the key parameters of representative projects. Examples include cottages in California’s Sonoma County, a wood-frame house in Oregon, and a small apartment complex in Dallas. Elsewhere, the author provides demographic data to help frame projections about the coming market and options to meet its needs. In Missing Middle Housing, Parolek improves upon criticisms of conventional zoning by defining precise terms and metrics for incremental change.

He also examines legal obstacles, of which there are several. In the main, they can be found in local land-use regulations, where rules may require single-family homes; enshrine outdated patterns; prescribe specific lot-coverage ratios; mandate parking requirements; establish yard-size and setback dimensions; or require special permits, variances, or other discretionary approvals to do something other than what is outlined in the plan, “as of right.” Separate from land-use zoning (which addresses urban planning considerations), the more technical construction codes also present challenges. In one of the most widely adopted model-code suites, small multifamily buildings are treated more like commercial properties than like houses, imposing a host of additional requirements during permitting and inspection.

When it comes to costs, Parolek reports that economies of scale encourage builders to go big. Generally, because of permitting, compliance, and additional “soft costs” associated with the groundwork for proposing any larger building—and the danger of a proposal being thwarted, after such spending, particularly if it needs discretionary approvals—large developers often propose big projects to increase their return on investment and justify their risk. Yet the same factors also discourage small builders from proposing midscale projects. This is notable because, in the past, the market’s ability to respond to robust housing demand has relied on a multiplicity of firms taking on many midsize developments, simultaneously.

To address the land-use challenge, including the financial risks it creates, planning boards could embrace and actively prescribe missing-middle units, as Parolek suggests, in revised land-use policies. That said, it is worth noting that in the days before zoning, when places grew more freely, some general patterns prevailed. One was the ad hoc division of large homes into smaller units, as demand rose. This still happens (often in spite of the law), and it creates new units that entail few visible changes. Another pattern entailed erecting new buildings, on house-sized lots, with multiple units from the start. In the context of these old ways, the housing that Parolek calls the missing middle overlaps nicely with what once formed the leading edge of a more organic, market-driven urbanism: a transition from detached frame houses to attached, masonry-clad buildings.

Seen through a lens of such incremental growth—which excessive regulation interrupts—Parolek is arguing indirectly that the law must allow us to recover the art of resourceful building and its generative role in urban growth. Some leaders have already begun to update the regulatory landscape to enable something like this. In Minneapolis, duplexes and triplexes have been legalized in single-family districts, citywide. In Oregon, duplexes have been legalized in single-family zones statewide, while even larger unit counts have been authorized in the Portland region. In California, local prohibitions on accessory dwelling units were recently superseded by state law. Such measures have the potential to unlock dormant real-estate values and align market options more closely with demand.

In Missing Middle Housing, Parolek adds his voice—and compelling numbers—to the chorus of those calling on government to rethink American land-use rules at a time when many neighborhoods in our most dynamic regions have become, paradoxically, both more expensive and less attractive. His is a valuable contribution. Still, a key question remains as momentum for reform grows: how will leaders in particular jurisdictions respond? Will they continue to push the limits of housing scarcity in key regions, building moats, opposing change, and grasping for control? Or will they heed the calls of those who would breathe life back into urban growth processes, and follow the lead of those places that have already begun to do so—allowing housing to be built in response to markets, and to be shaped by the needs of human beings?

Photo: hstiver/iStock

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