Missing Middle Housing—
not too big, not too little, just right.

January 6, 2023 |

The image above shows in white the two primary dwelling types found in most cities: single-family homes and mid-rise apartment buildings. What’s lacking, shown in yellow, are the diverse and complementary missing middle homes, such as duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes. Source: Missing MIddle Housing.

If you’re in the market to rent or purchase a home in Michigan, you’ll likely have two primary options: a single-family home or a unit in a larger apartment or condo building close to a downtown center. You may be able to find something like a duplex or a townhome, but they’re rare because of how most cities zone residential areas. In Traverse City, for instance, about 83% of land zoned residential is reserved for single-family homes.

With housing in short supply today, many are advocating changing zoning rules to allow for more diverse housing styles.

Source: New York Times

It wasn’t always like this.
East Coast early American cities tend to have a more diverse mix of housing since more of the land was built out when missing middle housing types were the norm. This is why New York and Washington, D.C., as shown above, look so different. Looking at zoning maps, it’s common to find land that allows for greater design combinations along rail lines and historic streetcar routes. This same pattern can be found in Michigan’s older cities.
We see more multi-family housing in historic neighborhoods across Michigan. Before the 1940s, designs like duplexes and triplexes were exceedingly normal. Traverse City didn’t zone for single-family until 1943—an unusual zoning restriction at the time. If you look, you can still find beautiful multi-family homes in older parts of town. But the city adopted a zoning code in 1978 that made single-family the dominant presence it is today.

Northern Architecture, 1926 Dumont Duplex

The beauty of choice

The benefits that missing middle homes bring to a city are convincing more communities to adopt policies that make them easier to build.

  • The first big benefit is that multifamily homes add greater population capacity to a city. The square footage may be the same as a single-family home, but it can house multiple families or individuals.
  • The cost to own or rent can be reduced. While a duplex or triplex will cost around the same amount to build as a single-family home of the same size, the cost can be shared by two or more families.
  • Another benefit is hidden density. Well-designed 2-,3-, or 4-unit homes can fit attractively into single-family neighborhoods from a scale and architecture standpoint, essentially blending into the feel of the block. 
  • Multifamily homes can be more energy efficient. Designs like townhomes that share walls reduce the surface area exposed to the elements, losing less heat (or cooling) and saving money and natural resources.
  • Missing middle homes can improve equity. Single-family zoning across the country perpetuates and worsens economic and racial segregation since homes in those areas tend to be priced higher. Desirable downtowns like those in the Grand Traverse region should consider affordable missing-middle housing strategies to ensure that families with more moderate incomes can live in the area.
  • Multifamily homes need less land than single-family, so they can help reduce the rate of suburban sprawl, preserving farmland and forests.
  • Diverse designs provide more flexibility. Depending on what stage of life you’re in, a single-family home may not fit your needs. Individuals, couples without children, or empty nesters may not need or want a three- or four-bedroom home.

Where change is happening

Cities are starting to realize that if they want to evolve and grow their communities, allowing more missing-middle homes can provide more people with housing.

In 2018 Minneapolis removed single-family zoning restrictions, allowing for additional housing types to be built. In 2019 Oregon passed a measure stipulating that in cities with more than 10,000 people, duplexes can be built in areas previously restricted to single-family—and even greater flexibility was created in the Portland metro area. California similarly removed single-family zoning in January 2022.

While those efforts may seem groundbreaking, it turns out that Michigan’s very own Grand Rapids removed single-family zoning over a decade ago in preference for what they refer to as “form-based lite.” Form suggests the desire to maintain a similar feel and design throughout a neighborhood. To help, Grand Rapids created the Neighborhood Pattern Work Book (more here: Next City), which describes the era in which each community was built and the associated “look” (e.g., turn of the century, early 20th century, post-World War II, etc.). The book guides new construction design so it blends with adjacent homes.

Traverse City has started talking about adjusting development rules to allow up to four dwellings per lot in certain areas in recognition of high demand. In its 2022 Annual Goals, the Planning Commission committed to exploring “a host of regulatory changes to remove barriers to provide additional housing opportunities. Allowing up to four total dwelling units in the R-2 district” (zone that allows for two-family homes).

The state is also advancing missing middle housing. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) in 2022 created a new Missing Middle Housing Program to assist in funding construction for rental and for-sale housing developments. Under the program, multifamily attached, detached homes, or townhomes are eligible. The first round of applications closes at the end of December 2022, but a second round of funding is anticipated in spring 2023, for $33 million. At least 30% of the funds must be allocated to rural projects.

Source: NPR

While it may not be everyone’s desire to live in a duplex or townhome, for others it may be precisely what they need. Expanding options in neighborhoods that are today zoned only single-family may mean that when people want to downsize, they can find something smaller within the same area, and they won’t have to move from friends and the community they’ve known.Groundwork logo for story end

Carolyn Ulstad

Carolyn Ulstad, Transportation Program Manager


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