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FOUND: Middle Housing.


Middle housing types integrated into a single-family neighborhood.
Missing middle housing is now one solution to America's housing shortage.

If you live in the State of Washington, or in any place that’s in the midst of a housing crisis, you may have heard the term “Missing Middle Housing.” And while there is a lot of current buzz around the term, it was actually coined back in 2010 by the founder of Opticos, Daniel Parolek, who called it “missing” middle housing because zoning laws have generally made this type of housing illegal to build since the 1940s.


New zoning reform policies now allow middle housing to be built in areas that were previously zoned for single-family housing only. Now that states like California, Oregon, Maine, Montana, and Washington, along with jurisdictions like Minneapolis, Minnesota and Arlington, Virginia have enacted zoning reform, it seems that this forgotten housing type is no longer missing. In fact, there is great potential for it to become increasingly prevalent as communities work to address the affordable housing shortage.


Yet, while it is now legal to build middle housing in single-family neighborhoods, after years of systemic housing regulations, the process for integrating it into communities will take more than just zoning reform.


What Is Missing Middle Housing and Why Is it Missing?

Over the last eight decades or so, zoning laws across the country have primarily limited housing types to detached single-family homes or mid- and high-rise multifamily housing. Think the typical suburban “American Dream” house with a white picket fence, as well as large apartment buildings. In fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “local zoning regulations prohibit the construction of any housing structure other than single-family, detached homes on 75% of land in most cities.”


Those restrictive zoning regulations prevented and discouraged the development of mid-sized housing, such as duplexes, townhouses, courtyard apartments, and other smaller multi-family housing types. Additionally, there was a larger cultural behavior that did not work in middle housing’s favor. Post-war families bought cars and fled to the suburbs to build single-family homes that aligned with the new popular vision of the “American Dream,” and these neighborhoods largely did not allow middle housing.


The restrictive nature of these zoning laws resulted in marginalized communities further segregated from economic opportunities. Multi-family housing has traditionally been a more affordable option than its single-family counterpart, which means large swaths of communities were financially inaccessible to historically oppressed people.


According to a 2021 statement from the White House, “Exclusionary zoning laws place restrictions on the types of homes that can be built in a particular neighborhood. Common examples include minimum lot size requirements, minimum square footage requirements, prohibitions on multi-family homes, and limits on the height of buildings.” The statement goes on to say that, “some zoning laws have been used to discriminate against people of color and to maintain property prices in suburban and, more recently, urban neighborhoods.” Incorporating affordable middle housing into our communities is a step toward rectifying this historical inequity.


Revisiting Middle Housing as an Option

Housing crises across the country have spurred cities to reexamine existing policies and regulations in an effort to generate solutions. Expectedly, these conversations involving zoning reform have been a hot topic. Allowing more housing on land that would have previously only accommodated one family is a straightforward way to increase our housing supply.


On the other hand, we are now hearing concerns from homeowners in these newly zoned areas. The opposition to higher-density housing is worried about how this will affect the neighborhood’s character and charm. Other concerns also include how this increased density will affect the existing infrastructure, such as parking, roads, and public transportation.


Middle housing has entered conversations as a solution that, fittingly based on its name, seems to occupy a solid middle ground. An article from the National Association of Homebuilders states:


“In terms of affordability, we tend to think of a dichotomy between single-family detached homes and apartments and townhouses, and people quickly become concerned about increasing density affecting neighborhood character. One way many communities in the United States are increasing density while maintaining a streetscape that is compatible with single-family housing types is to incorporate the concept of “missing middle” housing types.”


In theory, middle housing offers housing options at lower price points which allow people with various income levels the ability to get on the property ladder.


Is Middle Housing One Solution to the Housing Crisis?

As localities across the state of Washington undertake the comprehensive planning process, middle housing is one route to increase the housing supply to accommodate future growth. And a burst of recent housing legislation, including House Bills 1110 and 1337, thrust middle housing into the spotlight. HB 1110 is “an act relating to creating more homes for Washington by increasing middle housing in areas traditionally dedicated to single-family detached housing.” It goes on to mandate that “City zoning codes must allow at least six out of the nine of listed types of middle housing.”


Additionally, HB 1337 is “an act relating to expanding housing options by easing barriers to

the construction and use of accessory dwelling units.” Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as “mother-in-law units,” “granny flats,” and “secondary suites” are self-contained homes or apartments on the same lot as a primary single-family residence. Both of these bills remove barriers, allowing Washington cities to increase housing density in single-family neighborhoods. But are zoning laws the only barrier to developing the middle housing types Washington needs to generate more affordable homes?


The states and jurisdictions that were first to change their zoning laws, doing away with single-family zoning to welcome more middle housing, have seen modest results from their zoning reform laws. In 2018, Minneapolis was the first city to do away with single family zoning, but by 2020 there were only 104 duplexes and triplexes built in former single-family zones. A year after, California passed Senate Bill 9, allowing middle housing and ADUs in single-family zoned neighborhoods, permit applications were much lower than anticipated. On a brighter note, when Portland did away with single-family zoning, 127 new homes composed of middle housing, as well as ADUs, were created in just seven months.


While it will take time to measure the success of zoning reform, experts in Minneapolis, California and Portland agree that it will be critical to assess the current building regulations to find and address the constraints that are creating additional barriers to development.


Parking, floor area ratio, dividing water and sewer connections on what used to be a single lot and building setbacks are just a few examples of potential constraints that may make it more challenging for developers to build middle housing inside of traditional single-family zoned areas. States and municipalities will need to create a new set of building rules that apply to ADUs and middle housing to streamline the permitting and building process while creating incentives for developers to produce this type of housing.


Can Middle Housing Help Bellingham?

There are two truths that do not necessarily need to compete with each other: There is a need for more affordable housing in Bellingham, and there is the desire for people who already live in this community to maintain their quality of life. Middle housing is a viable option that can produce more affordable homes while integrating into the aesthetic fabric of our neighborhoods— so long as it’s thoughtfully developed.


This atlas from the Department of Commerce offers insight into what adding middle housing to our communities might look like, as well as guidance for how to incorporate the new housing model into traditionally single-family neighborhoods.


Beyond just the development of middle housing, it is also important that the people who own homes in Bellingham actually live and actively participate in our community. It’s inevitable that some of the middle housing development our community needs will be generated by outside real estate investors and property management groups, but we need to consider our 20-year economic forecast. We must create policies that will help local families become homeowners, especially if we want a stable, vibrant economy in 2045 and beyond. Therefore, the City of Bellingham and the State of Washington will have to address current building regulations and create incentives for builders to generate middle housing, as well as programs that provide ways for more residents to enter the housing market.


At the end of the day, how middle housing finds a place within our existing neighborhoods should be up for discussion by our community and its residents.


ABOUT

Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing-related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.




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WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?

Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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