The “Missing Middle” Affordable Housing Solution

Karen Parolek discusses the 'Missing Middle' that is too often overlooked in discussions about affordable housing.

Affordable by Design

Often known as “naturally occurring affordable housing” or “NOAH,” Missing Middle Housing is affordable by design. Here’s how it works:

Smaller Units and Shared (Lower) Land Costs Missing Middle Housing units typically range from studios to three-bedrooms, but they are inherently smaller than units in conventional single-family housing. This makes them more affordable, both as smaller units and because they share a lot with other units, so the land costs associated with each unit are lower.

Pictured: A Bungalow Court- This building type consists of a series of small, detached structures, providing multiple units arranged to define a shared court that is typically perpendicular to the street. The shared court takes the place of a private rear yard and is an important community-enhancing element.

Simple Construction Missing Middle Housing is stick-built (wood-frame construction) and low-rise, which means construction costs are lower than for larger buildings, since costs such as concrete podiums are avoided. The simple construction also makes it viable for homeowners, house-flippers, and small, local businesses to build Missing Middle Housing, vastly increasing the pool of “developers” able to contribute to the supply of affordable housing.

Less Parking Parking is expensive, and the cost of land for off-street parking is high in high-demand areas. Missing Middle Housing is inextricably tied to walkable places, so the need for parking is lower, which lowers the cost per unit yet again by decreasing the lot size needed. This increases affordability in two ways: lowering housing costs through smaller lot sizes, while also lowering or even eliminating the cost of car ownership.

Pictured: A Multiplex Small development- A medium structure that consists of five to 10 side-by-side and/or stacked dwelling units, typically with one shared entry or individual entries along the front.

Increases Supply for Neighborhood Living, Not City Living

Many cities and developers are focused on building new low-rise and high-rise apartment buildings. These can help with the supply issue for people interested in city living, and they can be effective solutions when designed and located appropriately, such as in a city core or along transit corridors.

However, many people prefer neighborhood living rather than city living, and five-plus-story buildings are too large for most neighborhoods. Missing Middle Housing is perfectly scaled to provide additional housing that fits in with the neighborhood character. Often, builders are finding it a great opportunity to respond to the demand for walkable neighborhood living with lower-price options than detached single-family homes and even townhouses.

Neighborhoods with Missing Middle Housing can have average densities of 30-50 units per acre—plenty high in most places to be considered a responsible use of our land resources. Yet, because Missing Middle Housing has the look and feel of single-family homes, it provides the density (increasing housing supply) while retaining the neighborhood character so many people are looking for.

This so-called “hidden density” or “Goldilocks density” also means that the neighborhoods have enough households to support local businesses, a critical feature of walkability.