Missing Middle Housing - Book Review

“Missing Middle Housing – Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis” by Daniel Parolek

A version of this piece originally appeared on the website NewGeography on October 1, 2020

California State Senate Bill 1120 (SB 1120), a bill that would’ve permitted duplexes on land zoned for single-family residences across the state, died abruptly at the 11th hour back in August of last year when assembly members in Sacramento failed to pass a vote before the official end of the 2020 legislative session. While the failure was a blow to housing advocacy and YIMBY groups, it was a win for neighborhood and homeowner associations across the state who viewed the legislation as too radical and heavy-handed.

SB 1120 isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last, battle over housing in California. While the state’s growing severity over housing affordability, homelessness, and economic inequality is something most people are concerned about, the debate over how to address these issues is increasingly embattled.

On the one hand are a growing chorus of younger voices and urbanists advocating for more housing density while older, mostly suburban, homeowners prefer to keep their single-family home neighborhoods the way they were when they bought into them.

Beyond California, the housing debate became a national issue in the 2020 Presidential election. On the campaign trail, former President Trump stoked suburban fears about public housing and rising crime by implying a Biden administration would do away with local zoning control. The Democrats, on the other hand, failed to reassure suburban voters by lacking the conviction to denounce the rioting and looting taking place across the country last summer.

With the dialogue over housing more polarized than it has been in recent memory, it is perhaps now more important than ever that some sort of compromise over a way forward enter the conversation. Luckily, we have the new book by Daniel Parolek, “Missing Middle Housing: Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis” to help guide us.

Parolek, an architect and founding principal of Opticos Design in Berkeley, California, has spent more than two decades focused on the question of “Missing Middle” Housing, which he defines as: “a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types, compatible in scale with single-family homes, that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living, respond to shifting household demographics, and meet the need for different price points.”

Helpful diagrams and case studies throughout the book assist in explaining the different types of Missing Middle Housing, which range from duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes to courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, and townhouses.

What is noteworthy about Missing Middle Housing is that none of the types analyzed by Parolek are new- examples of all these types can be found in cities and inner-ring suburbs throughout the United States. In many cases, these types are beloved architectural relics that are part of our collective cultural memory- think of the brownstone townhouses of Park Slope, Brooklyn, or the Spanish bungalow courts of Hollywood in Los Angeles.

What unites these types despite their stylistic variety is that most of them were built before World War II. The rise of local zoning regulations and demand for single-family housing after WWII accelerated the trend away from Missing Middle Housing.

Parolek goes onto explain that in the 1970s cities attempted to address the resulting lack of housing variety and availability of options for low-income households by abruptly changing zoning in single-family zoned areas adjacent to downtown to allow higher densities. What resulted was often poorly designed and produced an enormous backlash from impacted communities. He argues that we have still not recovered from this era in urban planning and why the aversion to the term “density” remains high today.

The answer to the imbalance between single-family zoning and high-density multi-unit buildings is revisiting the concept of Missing Middle Housing. Parolek makes the point that “Missing Middle Housing is about house-scale buildings that happen to have more than one unit within them”.

This contrasts with much of the discourse about housing supply today which is focused on adding density and the maximum number of housing units. Unlike the imposing, boxy condo buildings that have sprouted up across urban areas over the past decade, Missing Middle Housing aims to deliberately blend in with single-family neighborhoods as to not offend aesthetic sensibilities or overwhelm them in scale.

After making the case for Missing Middle Housing (including a discussion about how it can be an affordable solution for middle-income households who are priced out of the single-family market) Parolek spends the middle portion of the book breaking down each housing type into ideal form characteristics based on the constraints of a typical suburban single-family lot.

Rather than density, floor-to-area ratio, lot coverage and other zoning formulas, Parolek’s analysis focuses on design characteristics such as height, shape (form), unit layout, and ideal building dimensions.

For instance, as Parolek describes an ideal fourplex: “it often has a depth similar to that of a house, which allows for long, but shallow units with natural light exposure on the long sides of the unit. There is often one shared entry door that leads to a shared foyer or recessed porch with four doors. The two doors facing the street each go up a flight of stairs to the upper units. To the left and right are the doors that enter the ground floor units.”

To an architect like myself, the deep dive into the different Missing Middle Housing descriptions is fascinating and inspiring given the potential creativity involved in re-imagining modern-day versions of these classic types. To planners and bureaucrats who deal with data and formulas, the focus on form-based design might come off as off-putting or even confusing.

Parolek is aware of this disconnect and provides a list of bullet points on how to regulate each Missing Middle Housing type (for instance, Parolek recommends municipalities start by permitting fourplexes on corner lots in single-family neighborhoods instead of throughout entire neighborhoods).

If there is one criticism I have, it is that the book may be overly technical to the casual reader more interested in the history of land-use or the social/political implications of zoning reform. Beyond the introduction, the book is more of a “how-to” guide in designing and implementing Missing Middle Housing.

With regard to Missing Middle Housing implementation, Parolek does give some tips that may be helpful to planners and developers in getting this type of project across the finish line in resistant communities. He suggests framing the housing conversation away from terms like “density, multifamily and upzoning” and instead re-focusing on form and scale.

Of course, even with “house-scale” developments, residents in single-family neighborhoods might still have hang-ups about allowing them nearby. Toward the end of the book, Parolek gives some suggestions on where to apply Missing Middle Housing. He suggests starting with individual, small lot infill in pre-WWII neighborhoods that already have a mix of Missing Middle types and then moving onto secondary corridors that are historically zoned for commercial uses but could support Missing Middle developments. This seems to be a reasonable approach. Less clear is how Missing Middle Housing might exist in car-oriented suburban developments built in the past 20-30 years.

Overall, the book is an excellent launching pad to start re-thinking and talking about Missing Middle Housing again. In an era of deep political polarization that has spilled over into the land-use debate, finding a respectful balance between large-scale urban condo developments and single-family homes might be the best approach in addressing our ongoing housing crisis.