Culture Scan

At the intersection of real estate, media, and pop culture.

Why 'Missing Middle Housing' Should Become Less Extinct

A new book shares how "thinking big and building small" could be the housing solution to many.

Housing harkening back to the 1940s could be just what the market needs in 2020. Duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts, and courtyard buildings are all examples of “missing middle housing,” a concept that provides a range of multiunit and clustered housing types—which may contain a solution to the inventory crunch. But these designs have fallen in popularity, even while housing demand increases, which is why they are deemed “missing.” The term “middle” represents two standards: Their scale lies between single-family homes and large apartment buildings, and they are financially attainable for middle-income families.

In Daniel Parolek’s new book, Missing Middle Housing, he emphasizes the importance of house-scale buildings that contain multiple units. The maximum height, width, and depth for this classification of housing varies by city but typically follows the measurements of 55 to 75 feet across the street front, and 45 to 60 feet back.

Parolek was first introduced to these houses when he went to college in Chicago. As a current college student in Chicago who lives in this type of home, I can confirm it is extremely beneficial for both my lifestyle and bank account. Missing middle housing was designed for people like me and my roommate—students in the city who need off-campus housing closer to work and extracurricular activities.

Prairie Queen

© Dan Poralek

A collection of live-work units, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in a neighborhood in Prairie Queen Papillion, Nevada.

The book points out important characteristics of missing middle housing to keep in mind when selling to clients.

1. Lower perceived density, but enough to support environment. The average density of these houses range from 16 to 35 du/ac (dwelling units per acre), the amount of development permitted in a given area. They are often thought to be less dense than they actually are due to the home’s condensed and strategically-placed amenities.

“Missing middle housing can be thoughtfully integrated into single-family neighborhoods to increase the population density to reach a threshold that will begin to support neighborhood commercial amenities and transit,” writes Parolek.

From the front view, it’s hard to tell how many people the two-flat I live in holds. A short set of stairs leads to a door that goes into a small common area where mine and my neighbor’s mail is delivered. My unit is on the first floor, while a flight of stairs leads to a second-floor unit where a mom and her two young daughters live. Directly behind my building, accessible through a tunnel-like walkway, are three more units in this similar layout. This makes for 14 people sharing the same address, but each with just enough of their own space.

Prairie Queen
Floor layouts for a neighborhood of missing middle housing in Prairie Queen Papillion, Nevada.

2. Located in a walkable area. Because of growing demand for neighborhood access to work, school, restaurants, etc., the locations of missing middle housing is efficient. Stopping for gas, getting a parking ticket, or running late due to traffic are no longer stressors. Parolek says buyers are willing to accept a smaller unit in a more walkable neighborhood.

The street I live on is less than a 10-minute walk from more than 40 restaurants, 10 cafes, three grocery stores, and the “L” train. These were all deciding factors when I chose to live here, especially when it comes to Chicago’s infamous winters.

3. Strong focus on the community. As the resident occupancy per unit is low—typically one to two people—they long for a sense of community from outside sources. Missing middle housing’s amenities help contribute to that need through shared building spaces, social and diverse neighborhoods, and nearby places to eat and drink.

My apartment has a courtyard accessible to me and three connected units, which has provided me with many nights filled with campfires and making friends. That’s helpful in a big city.


© Jim Heid

A shared outdoor space amongst missing middle housing residents in Healdsburg, California.

4. Small but livable. Parolek says that while land, material, and labor costs rise across the country, smaller units allow developers to keep their costs down and attract buyers seeking a home that isn’t always represented in the market.

A common technique is to make the ceilings higher to create a more open atmosphere. Other features to maximize the livability include breakfast or sleeping nooks, built-in pantries, and lofts.

5. Thoughtful parking approach. The quality of a home’s design is compromised if too much space is reserved for parking. If side-street parking isn’t used efficiently, driveways will take the place of what could have been courtyards or community areas. An appropriate rule of thumb, which my street follows, is to allow no more than one parking space per unit.


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