Expert makes case for missing middle housing

Diagram of the missing middle.

In the Salt Lake metro, residential growth seems to mostly consist of two housing types: high-density developments and single-family homes.   But for urban planning expert, Daniel Parolek, a principal at Berkeley-based Opticos Design, there is a middle-density housing option that often gets neglected by developers but is equally important in building communities.

On Wednesday, the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City (RDA) hosted Parolek at the Main Library, where Parolek presented his prescriptions for zoning changes that would encourage the development of what Parolek refers to as the “missing middle.”

Middle-density housing refers to buildings that look like single-family homes but fit multiple units within that scale like, duplexes, townhomes and courtyard apartments. Capping the ends of the housing spectrum are single family houses and multi-story mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings.

According to Parolek, the demand for these types of units is outpacing its supply. Young people are driving this shift by being more willing than older generations to sacrifice square footage in order to live in a walkable urban environment. Parolek calculates that there is a 35 million unit shortage nationally of this housing type and notes that the demand for middle-density housing in Salt Lake City is only slightly less than the national average. According to Parolek, 90 percent of all new housing units would need to be middle-density housing to meet demand by 2040.

Parolek argues that middle-density housing if done correctly, can integrate well within established single-family housing neighborhoods and accommodate the growing demand for units near a city center while preserving the character of those neighborhoods.  The addition of middle-density housing can also lower housing costs as more units mean more affordable housing, a concept which Parolek calls “affordability by design,” as opposed to affordability by subsidy.

In Salt Lake, higher housing density can result in a more sustainable city by helping to decrease transportation and building emissions.

Parolek acknowledged that there are challenges in meeting the demand for middle-density housing. Most developers focus either on single-family housing neighborhoods in the suburbs or high-density apartment complexes in the city. When developers build middle-density units, they can be poorly designed and detract aesthetically and socially from their neighborhoods. Boxy buildings with no street-facing windows and large parking lots have left such a bad impression on some residents that Parolek noted a list of terms for developers and planners to avoid using, including “density,” “multifamily,” and “up-zone.”

The biggest obstacle, however, is zoning codes which are based on density, measured in dwelling units per acre. Parolek recommends a form-based code, in which the building type is the primary focus.  Parolek used as an example a picture of a high-end bungalow court, containing up to fifty dwelling units per acre, that was allowed in a single-family neighborhood, under a form-based code.

The Central Ninth neighborhood in Salt Lake City is the sole neighborhood that has form-based zoning.  In other parts of the city, a proposed development with a density greater than fifteen dwelling units per acre would require a multi-family residential zone under current codes.

As for developers whose experience lies elsewhere, Parolek said that once the code allows for the “missing middle,” builders in other cities have stepped in to meet the demand with no financial incentive from the city.

Parolek also noted that a form-based code would eliminate the need for neighborhood design requirements. One commenter in the audience voiced her disapproval of buildings that had been allowed in a form-based neighborhood, complaining that the multi-family structure was too tall and took up nearly the entire lot. Parolek admitted that while zoning changes accommodate the type of desired middle-density buildings, they would need to be fine-grained and done with the cooperation of existing residents to avoid projects out of scale with the neighborhood. Parolek recommended incorporating the idea of an overall “footprint” into the form-based code rather than the more common floor area ratio, which neglects to consider building height.

In addition to walkability, low perceived density and good design, Parolek argued that another characteristic of middle housing is that it needs only one off-street parking space per unit and because this type of housing would exist in a walkable urban context, paved parking spaces would be unnecessary and unattractive.

Parolek has launched, an informational website that provides additional resources and descriptions of the mid-density housing.

Posted by Nate Housley

Nate Housley grew up in South Carolina but moved to Utah in 2000 to attend Brigham Young University. He graduated in 2006 with a BA in English. He has written for SLUG Magazine and maintains an interest in playing and supporting local music. Having recently worked in IT, he is devoting more time these days to writing and sitting on his porch.