How to bring the ‘missing middle’ to Virginia housing development

July 23, 2021 12:02 am

A rendering showing Missing Middle homes mixed in with single-family housing on Granby Street in Norfolk. (Work Program Architects)

Standalone house or an apartment? When looking for a place to call home most folks know what type of housing they want, but what if there were more choices on the market?

Last month Norfolk’s city council approved a Missing Middle Pattern Book full of free designs and schematics for dozens of so-called “middle housing”: duplexes, quadplexes and the city’s iconic “Norfolk six-packs.” The move marks the latest attempt by a Virginia locality to encourage more middle housing, the array of options that lie between single-family detached homes and large apartment buildings.

But can plans on paper truly catalyze new construction and help solve the housing crisis?

The missing middle

Over the last decade, the percentage of Virginia residents cost-burdened by their housing expenses — defined as households paying more than 30 percent of their income towards shelter — had actually been declining. At 27.4 percent, that figure was still too high (and even higher for the 44 percent of cost-burdened low-income Virginians). After last year’s record-breaking 16.6 percent increase in median home prices across the commonwealth, local officials’ newfound  enthusiasm to expand the state’s housing stock seems long overdue.

“Demographics have shifted, and the family structure is not moving forward as the nuclear family that we’ve planned for in the past,” said Mel Price, principal at Work Program Architects — the firm behind Norfolk’s new pattern book. “There are also economic changes in terms of stagnating wages and rising housing costs. In the past, missing middle housing allowed our neighborhoods to flex over time. A single-family home can be divided into duplexes, for example, and that flexibility provided us more room to grow.”

The concept of a missing middle in our housing market grew out of the reality that for the last 80 years America has built little housing of a scale between single-family structures and multi-story apartments. Although the duplexes, quadplexes and courtyard apartments which constitute this category of housing typically prove more affordable thanks to lower land and construction costs per unit, the term focuses solely on the type of building, not the income of those who move in.

“If you’re going to walk away from a meeting on missing middle with any idea, it’s house-scale development,” said Dan Parolek , principal of Opticos Design and author of the book on the topic: Missing Middle Housing. “People often visualize adding more units means that the building will get bigger and bigger, but some of the examples identified in the pattern book demonstrate that you can have a house-scale building with multiple units in it. The concept has been so useful and popular because it gives planners and architects the tools to talk with homeowners about more housing without scary words like density.”

Zoned to fail

Arlington represents another Virginia locality exploring an expansion of which types of housing it allows in residential areas. Currently just one year into a three year missing middle housing study, the urban county faces demands from residents for more varied and affordable housing options that could help preserve the area’s racial and socioeconomic diversity. Missing middle units presently make up roughly one third of Arlington’s housing stock, but the stark transition from Metro-adjacent high-rises to single-family houses has county officials considering alternatives.

“Our zoning currently encourages larger housing units that are typically beyond the budget of many middle class families,” said Kellie Brown,  Arlington’s comprehensive planning section supervisor. “The existing zoning doesn’t allow for more missing middle housing, so there are limited opportunities to increase our housing supply under many local ordinances today. There’s an interest in increasing housing choice and supply, so people are beginning to think creatively about what might need to change.”

With 75 percent of residential land in Arlington zoned exclusively for single-family, detached homes, the zoning itself is what needs to change, according to Emily Hamilton, senior research fellow with George Mason University’s Mercatus Center: “If we look at what the typical locality is doing right now, they are permitting multi-family housing on a very small portion of their land and permitting single-family housing on a much larger portion of land. That means that developers want to use all the multi-family zoned land to squeeze in tall high-rises to fulfill the demand for apartments that can’t be met in other parts of town.”

The fact that much of Norfolk’s population growth over the past decade has been concentrated downtown is no coincidence. In a city that bans all multi-family housing on 87 percent of its residential land, such an outcome is practically inevitable. 

“Zoning is a problem; it’s a blunt instrument in a lot of ways,” said George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director. “You don’t have to look very far around the traditional areas of Norfolk like Ghent to see the benefits of mixed-use and multifamily buildings. Unfortunately, in the post-WWII environment what got built were apartment complexes and single-family, detached and virtually nothing else in between. We’ve balkanized our communities by housing type and lost so much of the built fabric that created the middle class.”

To rebuild the city’s vibrant urban fabric of the past, Norfolk’s planners and city council have been working in tandem to gradually allow more missing middle housing through a series of neighborhood “refreshes,” such as one agreed upon last week for Broad Creek — an area next to Norfolk State University and the Tide light rail

If the refreshes remain popular, the move to allow more missing middle housing could go citywide according to Homewood, the Norfolk planning director: “The real issue will be at what point do we say, ‘Maybe there is no place in the City of Norfolk where we have single-family, detached exclusive zoning.”

Is it enough?

With two thirds of Millennials and 55 percent of the Silent Generation wishing to move to more walkable neighborhoods, the demand for more missing middle development is there. According to the National Association of Realtors, however, just one tenth of all housing units are currently in walkable communities. Whether or not pattern books and zoning ordinance updates can help the market meet the need will come down to the details, according to Hamilton.

“It’s really important to have a flexible regulatory framework rather than zoning for a very specific type of missing middle construction because that was the history that made these neighborhoods possible,” said Hamilton. “Before zoning, what households wanted and what they were willing to pay for used to be all that determined what got built. A lot of the change needed in Norfolk is minimum-lot size reform because most of their neighborhoods have pretty high lot-size requirements.”

Minimum-lot sizes, mandatory setbacks and off street parking requirements are just a few of the restrictive regulations that have tilted the scales towards single-family, detached housing over the last eight decades. Undoing the layers of laws holding back missing middle housing may prove no easy task. “If they undertook all of the regulatory changes to make the Norfolk six-pack feasible, that would be a big win, but it’s certainly not as simple as just allowing six units per lot,” Hamilton said.

To expedite the permitting for new missing middle construction, Price and her team are working on pre-approved site plans to accompany each of the blueprints included in Norfolk’s new pattern book. “The site plan pre-approval process is still six months to a year in Norfolk even though we’re faster than our neighbors,” said Homewood. “It’s long and laborious, so we’re trying to figure out if we can give people not only the building concepts and floor plans but also an ability to move much more quickly from concept to construction.”

To have it all done and approved by city council by the end of the year will be a “heavy lift” according to Price, “but it will make a big impact.”

As planners and advocates push for more missing middle housing in localities across the commonwealth, Parolek advises them to remind local leaders and residents why the reforms are required.

“This is about meeting a need because developers are struggling to produce single-family homes at attainable price points,” he said. “COVID was just the fuel on the fire of already increasing housing prices, meaning cities need to think creatively about how to deliver more housing for residents. Missing middle housing can deliver more attainable housing units at more affordable price points.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.