What Does ‘Middle Housing’ Look Like?

Last week, the Oregon Senate passed House Bill 2001 which would fundamentally change residential zoning laws in Oregon. In cities of 10,000 or more people, duplexes will be allowed in areas currently zoned for single-family homes. In cities of 20,000 or more people, triplexes and fourplexes will be allowed in areas currently zoned for single-family homes. The bill has bipartisan support and Gov. Kate Brown is expected to sign it.

Supporters of the bill argue that “middle” housing is missing in America. This is housing somewhere between single-family housing and mid- or high-rise apartment living. According to The Missing Middle, “These building types, such as duplexes, fourplexes, and bungalow courts, provide diverse housing options to support walkable communities, locally-serving retail, and public transportation options.”

They’re historically missing because they’ve been illegal to build since the 1940s when zoning laws changed to favor detached, single-family homes and mid- to high-rise apartments.

According to reporting by City Lab, restricted access to land through single-family zoning leads to “increased costs, worse affordability problems, and deepened inequality in urban centers.”

The disparity is easily highlighted by these graphics from the Sightline Institute:

“The first 15 yellow areas where duplexes or apartments were made illegal, put in place between 1924 and 1959. Each red dot is a building with two to eight homes constructed after 1924. Map by Neil Heller.”

“Blue areas are Census block groups with median incomes over $60,000. Dark blue are blocks with median incomes over $95,000. Map by Neil Heller. Data source: U.S. Census Bureau.”

“Portland’s highest-income Census block groups mapped against its first 15 exclusionary zones. Map by Neil Heller. Median income data: Census American Community Survey.”

The areas where attached homes were originally banned, closely lines up with areas with expensive homes.

Exclusionary zoning creates racial and economic segregation by insulating the wealthy, higher-educated and predominately white homeowners in trendy and desirable locations. This pushes out poorer, less-educated folks who are often people of color.

By increasing housing density, middle housing is anticipated to reduce housing prices by bringing more units to the market and walk back some of the segregation created from exclusionary zoning.

What does Middle Housing look like?

Middle housing share many desirable characteristics like walkability, community, and smaller-footprints. They have higher density than single-family homes but much lower than traditional apartment buildings.

Walkability is very important for middle housing because renters or homeowners are trading yard size and square-footage for proximity to public transportation, restaurants, work, and other amenities.

The walkability context also plays a key role in building community within middle housing. Especially with cottage clusters or courtyard apartments, having central community space adds another dimension and allows renters or homeowners to interact with neighbors right next door or run into each other at a neighborhood cafe or the bar on the corner.

Here are some examples:

  • Duplexes: small or medium-sized dwellings either side-by-side or stacked on top of each other.
  • Cottage Clusters (or Bungalow Courts): small or medium-sized detached dwellings that share outdoor space and sometimes an indoor community space. See our Mason Street Townhomes for an example. Portland already has several of these types of communities.
  • Townhomes: anywhere from four to eight small or medium-sized attached dwellings that are usually placed side-by-side.
  • Fourplex (or quad-plex): four units usually two dwellings side by side with two more dwellings stacked, they can share a common entrance or each have their own.

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