Design & Construction

Missing Middle Pattern Book

Cover of the Missing Middle Pattern BookThe Missing Middle Pattern Book contains free plans for flexible and affordable housing that will be preapproved for building in Norfolk Virginia. This option opening in Virginia is an opportunity that you can use to convince local city councils and zoning boards to approve a wider range of housing types. If you have an example of a plan that is working and can demonstrate that another city is benefiting from using it,  your own city council is likely to listen and if they listen, so will the zoning board. (If the zoning board doesn’t listen to the council, the city has problems you may not want to take on.)

This post is based on “How to bring the ‘missing middle’ to Virginia housing development,” by Wyatt Gordon published in the  Virginia Mercury on 23 July 2021.

Last month Norfolk Virginia’s city council approved a MissingMiddlePatternBook 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.

The Missing Middle Pattern Book for the Missing Middle

Over the last decade, the percentage of Virginia residents cost-burdened by 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’ found a new enthusiasm for expanding the state’s housing stock.

“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. “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 reality is 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 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.

Site plan for a block of missing midddle housing

Dan Parolek, principal of Opticos Design and author of the book on the topic: Missing Middle Housing says, “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

Like many cities across the United States, Arlington, Virginia is exploring an expansion of the types of housing allowed in residential areas. The urban county faces losing residents that would help preserve the area’s racial and socioeconomic diversity. One problem is the stark transition from Metro-adjacent high-rises to single-family houses.

“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, a 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. 

Minimum-lot sizes, mandatory setbacks, and off-street parking requirements are all restrictions that favor single-family, detached housing. Allowing 6 units per lot is just the beginning. Allowing six units per lot means more required parking, for example. We’ve lost so much of the built fabric that created the middle class, the real issue becomes whether there is any place for exclusive detached single-household zoning in cities at all. 

The Missing Middle Is Also Missing Walkable Neighborhoods

With two-thirds of Millennials and 55 percent of the Silent Generation in Virginia (and elsewhere) wishing to move to more walkable neighborhoods, the demand for missing middle development is high. According to the National Association of Realtors, only one-tenth of all housing units are in walkable communities

The strategy in Norfolk is to expedite the permitting for new missing middle construction by developing pre-approved site plans for each of the blueprints included in the new pattern book. The ambitious goal is set to be operational by the end of 2021— a difficult timeline but setting an ambitious timeline is the first step to accomplishing it.

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