Spencer Agnew attended the 21st annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Salt Lake City. He will do a series of short blog posts highlighting ideas and trends from this national gathering of urban planners, architects, and real estate professionals.
Day two at CNU 21 featured a discussion of “Missing Middle” housing. Missing Middle housing includes residential buildings which are somewhere between a single family home and a mid-rise multifamily building in density. This includes building types such as duplexes, triplexes, bungalow courts, townhouses, and courtyard apartments. Although a common feature in pre-war historic building stocks, these housing types have become much less common (hence the “missing”). Modern building codes, zoning regulations, and subdivision regulations often make it impossible to build these housing types, even in areas where they are part of the existing building stock.
A primary benefit of Missing Middle housing is that it provides more choice in housing types while blending in to existing single family neighborhoods. They are typically more affordable than a single-family home due to being smaller and sharing communal parking and lawns. However, unlike mid-rise apartment buildings, Missing Middle housing can blend right in to single family neighborhoods. Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design noted that these building types typically have a residential unit density in the range of 16 to 30 units per acre but are often perceived as being less dense due to the being smaller in scale.
Several market trends tend to favor the development of Missing Middle housing, should zoning and building codes be modified to allow it. University of Utah demographer Christopher Nelson has found the national demand for small lot and attached housing exceeds supply by some 35 million units. Christopher Leinberger at the Brookings Institution also researched housing preferences and found that while 30% to 40% of buyers want to be in walkable urban neighborhoods, only 5% to 10% of the housing stock is providing that in any given housing market. Another factor in favor of smaller housing types is the increasing trend towards smaller households and fewer households with children.
Linda Pruitt of the The Cottage Company (based in Seattle) has had success building several “cottage court” developments in the Seattle area. She noted that many residents of her cottage court developments are looking for a detached housing option that is smaller in size and requires less maintenance than a single-family home. The cottage court concept meets that need by grouping several small detached houses around shared lawns and parking. Residents get the benefit of their own detached home, and association fees take care of the lawn and parking maintenance. The most prevalent demographic groups in The Cottage Company’s cottage court housing tend to be single women, empty nesters, and young professional couples.
Several panelists noted the need for regulatory reform to allow housing builders to meet market demand for Missing Middle housing. Rene Oehlerking of Garbett Homes compared regulation of the housing market with other industries, asking “what if the FCC regulated how large or small cell phones could be?” Because of stringent regulations, it is difficult for housing builders to innovate and adapt to changing consumer preferences. “We don’t know what the buyer of tomorrow will want, so why not let producers innovate and housing products evolve?”