Missing Middle Housing Diagram
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Teri Shore

Missing Middle Housing—A Book Review—Housing Options for a More Resilient Climate

If you just look at the cover of the new book Missing Middle Housing, you are likely to have an epiphany like I did. The simple but profound cover graphic illustrates the type of homes that we live in on a spectrum from the familiar single-family home at one end to the common apartment block on the other. The “Missing Middle” is everything in between, such as townhomes and courtyard cottages, duplexes, live/work spaces, and other residential shapes and sizes. The epiphany is that Missing Middle Housing was the foundation of our towns and neighborhoods before car culture and suburbia took over. And that Missing Middle Housing is key to creating the climate-smart communities we want and need in coming decades.

The main characteristic of Missing Middle Housing is that it is “house-scale” to fit into existing neighborhoods. The subtitle of the book describes it as “thinking big and building small to respond to today’s housing crisis.”

What is Missing Middle Housing?

To really understand the concept, you must read the book. Author and urban designer Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design coined the term and explains it this way: Missing Middle Housing is a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types, compatible with single-family homes, that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living, respond to shifting household demographics, and meet the need for housing choices at different price points.

Middle refers to the “middle-scale” of buildings between single-family homes and large apartment or condo complexes, including duplexes, fourplexes, and cottage courts. It also refers to the affordability or attainability level that more compact residences can offer to middle-income families.

Before reading the book, I first learned about Missing Middle Housing when Opticos partner Stefan Pellegrini gave a talk at a Know Before You Grow meeting in Petaluma a couple of years ago. A light bulb went off in my head when he explained that walkable downtowns like in Old Petaluma and around the Bay Area are popular because the living spaces are mixed in with shops and offices at a human scale. It feels safe and pleasant to walk past doors opening onto the sidewalk. North Bay land-use expert Lois Fisher calls that “eyes on the street.” It is enjoyable to walk and bike around such neighborhoods, and it is also good for the environment and to build resilience to climate change.

Changing Households and Choices

A reality that the book exposes in the context of needs and desires for updated housing choices like Missing Middle is that the size and age of American households are changing rapidly. While the large Baby Boomer generation drove the demand for single-family homes in the suburbs, over the next two decades they will be driving the next wave of housing by downsizing and seeking smaller residences for one or two adults closer to town. Single-person households of all ages, including Generation X and Millennials and those without children, will comprise 81 percent of household growth between now and 2040. While the number of families with children will also grow, they comprise just 19 percent of the growth. The authors argue that due to these major demographic shifts, there is a growing pent-up preference in America for more walkable communities, housing choices, and yes, Missing Middle Housing.

From here the book delves into housing affordability, various types and “forms” of houses possible with Missing Middle Housing, and the barriers in existing land-use and zoning policies built on the current car centric and suburban model that favors single family homes and high density apartment complexes.

The recent rejections of exclusive single-family zoning in major cities such as Berkeley, Portland, and Minneapolis St. Paul are in line with Parolek’s vision for moving forward with smaller, more compact but livable, climate-smart housing. Removing such zoning allows for more options such as converting large houses into duplexes and fourplexes or other innovative forms.

What does Missing Middle Housing look like?

The last chapter in the book brings it all home by dedicating over 60 pages to how people can make Missing Middle Housing happen in their city, with numerous case studies and examples of different cities and their approaches.

“The book does a wonderful job of visualizing different varieties of Missing Middle Housing—from courtyard buildings to fourplexes to cottage courts—the book clearly delineates the different types, their design characteristics, and the best way to regulate each individual form,” said Advocacy Manager Justin Wang, who helped review the book.

The book opens with an anecdote in Isla Vista, CA, near Santa Barbara where the author highlights the point that it is not necessarily density that people find objectionable to building more housing, but form. It quickly makes the case that house-scale multifamily housing, built right, is not only unobjectionable, but to the benefit of the neighborhoods where it is located. 

Bay Area case studies include the Sonoma Wildfire Cottages in Santa Rosa and the Library Cottages in Healdsburg as well as farther afield in places like Portland and Minneapolis and other locations across the United States.

Where I live in Sonoma, CA, there are several properties that would seem to be perfect for Missing Middle Housing: the Gateway site at the entry to the city at Broadway; and land on the inside edge of the Urban Growth Boundary that may be annexed in the future. Both face challenges from neighbors due to proposals for large high-density developments that are out of scale to nearby homes, and mostly market rate. Could Missing Middle pave the way to common ground? Reading Missing Middle Housing is an easy and pleasant exploration of the shapes and forms of our homes and why they matter as we build a climate-resilient future. It provides the facts and the vision without becoming a textbook or a diatribe. It has tasteful artwork and layout that you might expect from an urban designer and architect and his team. Whether you are a housing advocate, planner, developer, or city leader, Greenbelt Alliance believes that Missing Middle Housing is a worthwhile and inspiring read!

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