On Missing Middle Housing
For a variety of reasons, the single-family home has been king in the US for the better part of a century. This has been especially true for Los Angeles, a city built on real estate speculation that converted a sleepy desert into a booming metropolis in just a few generations. It is, as Mike Davis calls it in City of Quartz, “the most permanent boomtown in American history,” and the image of a sunny suburban plot at the edge of our western frontier was a dominant factor attracting would-be Angelenos from all corners of the US to fuel its growth. For decades, we built as if our land resources were never-ending, and we are now coming to terms with—and attempting to address—the deleterious effects that such a singular planning focus has wrought.
This image of Los Angeles, however, belies the fact that the city is–and has been–composed mostly of renters. The construction of multifamily housing in the region has been—at its best—at least as innovative as the modernist single family homes for which Southern California is better known. Despite there being plenty of demand, however, there are relatively few viable multi family lots in the city, largely because of zoning efforts. In fact, of all residentially zoned lots in the city, a whopping 74% are zoned for single family residential. This creates an artificial scarcity for multifamily sites, which in turn drives up the cost of acquiring and building upon such lots. In response to this, developers are incentivized to maximize the size and density of these lots. Because of this, and because of the ensuing economies of scale, new apartments are typically being provided in large housing blocks of 30+ units. In a low-rise city such as Los Angeles, though, such large projects are incongruous with the makeup of the majority of neighborhoods (which is a major reason such projects are often vehemently opposed by local residents).
All this is a long-winded way of saying that there have been two extremes of building prevalent in our housing delivery system. There is a sizable gap not being served between these two extremes, however, and for a variety of reasons there are just not that many options being built that address it. In Los Angeles, this gray zone could prove key to addressing our tremendous housing shortage. By allowing a thoughtful density in greater parts of the city that is compatible with the low-rise nature of most of our neighborhoods we can bring online much-needed housing supply in significant numbers while not drastically changing the character of most neighborhoods. Enter: the missing middle.
Missing middle housing is a range of multiunit or clustered housing types that are typically compatible in scale with single-family homes. They are referred to as “missing” because they have largely been illegal to build in most neighborhoods throughout the US because of local zoning restrictions. The importance of addressing this “missing middle,” though, has been garnering attention as of late. Both ULI and Dwell have run stories about it in the last year, and the Biden administration is including its promotion as part of their plan to address the affordable housing crisis in the US. These types of housing include duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, and small apartment buildings with typically fewer than ten but as many as twenty units. In LA, lots are rife with potential for this sort of low-rise density, and the market is hungry for it. These sorts of developments help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living, respond to shifting household demographics, and can meet the need for more housing choices at different price points. They are also more in line with the character and scale of the majority of neighborhoods in the city.
Even though these sorts of projects were once prevalent across the US, since the adoption of standard zoning ordinances their construction has waned significantly. The former popularity of these housing types is still evident today, however, with one out of every 13 homes in the country being a part of a two- to four-unit building according to data from the US Census. It is worth revisiting this typology, however, as the benefits are multiple.
Missing middle housing can have a positive impact on the availability of more attainable homes, for example. Since the 1970s, the number of “starter homes” (homes under 1,400 sf) being built has been steadily declining. By 2020, less than 10 percent of all new homes built fit into this category according to Census data. Missing middle housing could provide a boon to the construction of these sort of units, which historically have been a more attainable option to lower- and middle-income households. A study by California Community Builders on the effects of upzoning, in fact, found that single family homes on large lots are on average 2.7 times more expensive than would be the resulting condos or townhomes that could be built on the same lot at middle density scale.
Additionally, missing middle housing has environmental benefits. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found, for example, that residents in higher density neighborhoods living in multifamily and single family attached homes used about 40 percent less electricity and 50% less water than residents in low-density areas. New missing middle construction in existing neighborhoods could also spur further development, making neighborhoods more walkable. The increased density could also encourage transit agencies to provide more frequent services. Combined, these could lower residents’ vehicle miles traveled, thus lowering their vehicular carbon footprint.
The typology also fits well with our nation’s changing demographics. Baby boomers, for example, would benefit from the increased availability of smaller homes that would allow them to downsize without having to relocate too far. And our nation's second largest generation, millennials, are hungry for more attainable housing options near urban amenities. What’s more, both generations have expressed a greater preference for walkability in a neighborhood over a larger backyard, according to the National Association of Realtors recent Community and Transportation Preference Survey.
So why are we not building more middle density housing? As mentioned, a large part is zoning. There are, however, new(ish) initiatives aimed at addressing this in California and Los Angeles. California’s ADU laws have proved extremely popular, for example, and the relatively recent SB 9 effectively did away with single family zoning in the state. In addition to this, there are local measures such as the Small Lot Ordinance in L.A. City and the Compact Lot Ordinance in L.A. County that strive to alleviate some of the regulation that is preventing such developments from happening. While these initiatives have yet to make a meaningful impact on our housing deficit, they are a step in the right direction. They are also relatively new, so their impact might not really be felt for some time. There are, of course, many facets to this issue, and zoning is not the only thing keeping such projects from getting built. More on that in a separate post.
Missing middle housing can be an important part of addressing our housing needs in Los Angeles. Moreover, it provides an avenue for adding density to a city in a manner that is in line with the low-rise nature of much of its neighborhoods. It also provides exciting design opportunities and opportunities to create communities at varying scales. Policymakers are increasingly interested in spurring this sort of developments as evidenced by the many new laws passed throughout the country meant to catalyze its growth. We must do what we can to support these efforts and even push beyond them if we are to meaningfully address our housing shortfalls.
See you next week.