Middle homes aren’t newfangled. If anything, this kind of legislation effectively re-legalizes home options that are familiar in many Northwest neighborhoods but are no longer allowed.
Legislators in Oregon and Washington are eyeing statewide solutions to keep job centers affordable for middle-income people. Among those being considered in this legislative session are “missing middle” housing proposals aimed to re-legalize a variety of home choices like duplexes, triplexes, and quads in residential city neighborhoods. These kinds of mid-size homes could help curb prices and give moderate-income, working families and small households like seniors or young couples more affordable options.
A bill introduced by Tina Kotek, Oregon’s House of Representatives Speaker, would commit cities with populations of 10,000 and larger to allow a range of home types in more neighborhoods to make sure affordable choices remain available for households of different ages, sizes, and incomes. Lawmakers in Washington State are looking to follow suit, lifting current restrictions that ban all but the most expensive housing in residential neighborhoods across the state.
Middle homes aren’t newfangled. If anything, this kind of legislation effectively re-legalizes home options that are familiar in many Northwest neighborhoods but are no longer allowed. Historically in North American cities, including cities across Washington and Oregon, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments were built alongside stand-alone houses. Starting in the 1920s, cities began ratcheting up restrictions on what kinds of homes could be built, and by the 1960s, most had banned everything but single-dwelling houses on vast swaths of their land—typically more than half of a city’s residential area. Gradually returning neighborhoods to a healthy mix of homes of all shapes and sizes is a critical part of the affordability solution that so many people in this region need.
Choices about which home types are allowed and which are not shape our communities, especially by determining who can afford to live in them and who cannot. Since 1970, average sizes for new detached houses have soared by 64 percent. When cities choose to stop preventing modest home types and begin again to allow more than one home on a single lot, they can also help reverse the trend to bigger—and pricier—“McMansions.”
Here are messaging ideas to keep in mind when discussing this kind of middle housing solution:
Focus on the benefits of missing middle home choices for communities and families of all incomes: Re-legalizing middle housing means a range of affordable choices, all shapes and sizes, for all kinds of neighbors. Our communities do better with middle-class and workforce homes near jobs, schools, and transit.
Frame up a clear choice about how we shape our communities: Re-legalize affordable, middle-class homes or more McMansions? Allow mid-size homes or limit communities to all but the most expensive? We either re-legalize homes like duplexes and quads so our communities stay affordable for people of all incomes, or we continue to restrict home choices to the most expensive and exclusive. Allowing a variety of mid-size, modest homes helps protect modest homes—and neighborhoods—from a trend toward bigger and pricier “McMansions” and higher prices.
Connect middle home solutions to shared values: protecting the American Dream for families of all incomes, especially young people and seniors. Where we live shapes our lives and our long-term success–from the length and cost of our commutes to where children go to school. Middle home choices in neighborhoods close to jobs, schools, transit, parks, and businesses expand opportunity for all. Re-legalizing middle housing as an option would put many young people on a better track to build their American dreams and keep many seniors from losing what they’ve built.
Paint a picture with photos and descriptive, plain language (not buzz words): Instead of jargon (like “density,” “units,” “zoning” and “multi-family”), show what solutions look like and name specific home types—duplexes, triplexes, small apartments. These kinds of homes are familiar in many neighborhoods; most people can imagine them fitting into their community and providing options for their neighbors. Showing what they look like helps tame exaggerated fears.
Find more housing affordability talking points here and our affordability policy analysis here.
Maybe stop pathologizing humans who thrive in private space over habittrails.
Maybe work on lowering population and unnatural crowding?
Maybe work on housing that interacts with people & environment a la https://landscapeforlife.org/
Instead of lowering the threshold of the American dream of home-ownership why not work to help people reach their dream, even if that means one house/one household?
As long as demonizing traditional American housing is part of the messaging I will fight against the re-tenementing of my region.
We see these tri-plexes and similar townhouses already in Seattle’s LR zones. They are not a new idea here. Units being built are priced in the high 6 figures — not the “missing middle” home prices we need, prices affordable to middle-class families.
Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods are already built out. Allowing this higher-density development there means that the most affordable SF homes get bulldozed and replaced by more dense but less affordable housing.
Is it possible to go beyond rah-rah urbanist cheerleading and try finding or creating a housing strategy that works for middle-income families — those folks too “rich” for subsidized (HALA) housing but too poor for the marketplace?
Roger, it takes a while to build up the supply that’s needed in the city to meet all of the housing needs. The units you see might not be affordable to the lowest income earners, but those who can afford these will reduce competition for other existing units. It’s basic market economics. And there are still likely more changes that need to be made to enable more inexpensive homes. And as cities beyond Seattle itself create more housing as well, it will also help relieve some of the pressure on Seattle.
I like the simple “neighbors wanting more neighbors” slogan that was used in Minneapolis (effectively it seems.
There’s a similar movement in Cascadia (neighbors for more neighbors) but it didn’t catch on/hasn’t caught on like it did in MN.
I also like to help neighbors understand that by enabling people to live near where they need to be each day, we reduce regional traffic and the need to build and maintain more infrastructure. This also saves our employees time so that they can spend more time doing the things they love rather than sitting in traffic. It makes local businesses more viable, because they will be able to attract employees who would otherwise opt to do the same job in a place with lower housing costs. And we’ll have people working in our community who are more invested in our community, because this is also where they live.
One of the foundational assumptions of and justifications for the RIP and similar “infill” proposals is that building will perforce lower costs (despite candid admissions by various Oregon State figures associated with or commenting on the RIP’s effect on rental and leasing costs). A careful urban studies analysis of a similar program in Chicago contends otherwise and offers supporting data. For those not interested in reading the complete report (see below), here’s the bottom line: “…the short-term, local-level impacts of upzoning are higher property prices but no additional new housing construction.”
Freedmark, Y. “Upzoning Chicago: Impacts of a Zoning Reform on Property Values and Housing Construction”, Urban Affairs Review 1–32, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.
I agree that that’s a good paper by Freemark. It also:
– applies to Chicago, where aldermanic permission is required for new developments regardless of zoning.
– has a five-year time scale; note the words “short term” in that bottom-line summary. Zoning plans should consider short-term side effects, but they’re written with much more than a five-year time scale in mind.
– studied much larger developments than fourplexes.
Here’s a useful analysis of the Freemark finding:
The economies of scale do not improve that much when you only add a single unit to the equation compared to building a large apartment or condo complex especially if you aim at the “luxury” market.