Utah cities and towns, like rest of America, need missing middle. ‘Zoning is DNA,’ expert says

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Home builders in the U.S. aren’t meeting the growing needs of Americans because modern zoning won’t allow them to, an urban planner from Daybreak said at a recent Building Salt Lake event.

Zoning in Utah and throughout much of the country is leading to new and recently built homes that further socioeconomic segregation at a time when more people are looking for more options on where they live, said Mike Hathorne, chair of the Utah chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Hathorne delivered a lecture at the BSL Events Missing Middle Housing event in the Lower Avenues on Saturday, before leading a tour of a range of existing housing types that are now largely illegal to build in Salt Lake City and across much of the Wasatch Front.

“Zoning, in essence, is DNA,” Hathorne said. “If you want certain outcomes, you have to have the zoning that will allow for it.”

Throughout the Lower Avenues and across much of Salt Lake City, a mix of condos, apartments and live-work spaces have long made up the character of the neighborhood, but have since been largely zoned out of existence.

The event gave attendees a chance to see an example of development patterns before modern zoning. Buildings often took into account the surrounding context and were built in a scale that matched the neighborhood. This was, Hathorne noted, before modern zoning.

The tour showed a range of “housing types sitting next to each other that [housing] commodity DNA would tell you is illegal,” Hathorne said. “And yet you’ll see it on the street and it will be far from offensive. It works because of the context and scale of delivery.”

“The commodity-based DNA has been, for lack of a better term…weaponized to allow for economic segregation in this country.”

Mike Hathorne, chair of CNU-Utah at BSL Events Missing Middle Housing Tour

Hathorne’s lecture focused on what zoning codes look like when they view housing only as a commodity for sale, rather than an increment that builds a community. City governments have used zoning as a weapon, Hathorne said, and it’s left Utah with a shortage of housing options that are in high demand.

“From a zoning standpoint, what we should be attempting to do is to govern relationships, scale, context and form,” Hathorne said. “When you get that wrong, you can have disastrous results.”

Community or commodity?

A street in a “moderate density” residential zone in Herriman, Utah. Details in the zoning code mean big houses on big lots built on former open space. Google Maps

Throughout Salt Lake County, suburbs have created a DNA for large homes on large lots with two-car garages facing the street.

Take Herriman, for example. 

One of the town’s “moderate density” zones requires at least two off-street parking spaces per home and lots that are at least 7,405 square feet per house (0.17 acres). Duplexes and triplexes are a conditional use in the zone, meaning any builder that wanted to build missing middle would need city permission to build it, adding time and risk compared to just building large, single-family homes.

Draper is covered with supposed medium density residential zoning, including zones that require nearly a half-acre to one-acre lots at a minimum.

The problem isn’t unique to Salt Lake County, either.

“We have a system that delivers a commodity, a development pattern that delivers commodity in terms of almost like a factory, a widget system,” Hathorne said.

Drop a pin in any town that’s undergoing a home-building boom and the result will likely look something like this street in Killeen, Texas, or another in Phoenix, or another in Las Vegas, or another in Orlando. (Click through the slideshow below).

“The commodity-based DNA has been, for lack of a better term…weaponized to allow for economic segregation in this country,” Hathorne said. 

If you dig through the cities’ zoning codes, you’ll find the same issues that lead to similar results. High minimum lot sizes, high minimum home sizes, maximum coverage ratios, high minimum off-street parking requirements, exclusive single-family zoning. 

Those requirements tend to spread houses farther apart and add to the cost via larger homes on more land that once was open space. Another result is fewer choices for people who make less money.

“People with more money have more ability to choose,” Hathorne said. “As the cost of housing goes up and they need housing, they will start to push down, which then causes a ripple effect, harming people at the lower income levels.”

Hathorne talked about the range of housing types that sit between single-family homes and mid-rise apartments. This cohort is known as missing middle: It’s often hidden from plain view given its context and scale often matches the surrounding neighborhood, and it’s missing from zoning codes.

“Missing middle housing is a big portion of the solution, but we have to have it available,” Hathorne said. “There’s a problem in having it available.”

Quantifying the need

Opticos Design

The situation is playing out at a time when American families are getting smaller, and America’s Baby Boomer generation looks for ways to comfortably grow old outside of a nursing home.

Boomers, the largest bloc of homeowners in the U.S., don’t need as big of a house as they did when they were raising families, yet they face a lack of options for where to go. And zoning often doesn’t allow for housing types that offer less space if someone needed less.

“We are not being context-sensitive to what we need as a society,” Hathorne said. “So people have to simply choose from what’s available, regardless of whether it fits their needs or not.” 

Hathorne pointed to a study from Arthur C. Nelson, a professor at the University of Arizona, that quantified how large the need is.

“If we delivered 62 percent of all new housing as missing middle product, it would take us until 2040 to catch up with the demand,” Hathorne said. “We are that far behind.”

In recent decades, there have been a handful of new-build communities that clear the way for community-building through housing design.

Missing middle in action

A condo building at the corner of South Temple and U Street in Salt Lake City’s Lower Avenues neighborhood. Given the scale and context of surrounding buildings, the building fits in well with the neighborhood. Photo by Taylor Anderson.

Compare the commodity-based zoning system to master planned communities like New Town, in St. Charles, Missouri.

Homes are set closer to the sidewalk and street. If they exist, garages are tucked behind the home and accessed via alleyways. Streets are narrower and shaded by street trees.

“What makes this work is the articulation of the pieces being put together,” Hathorne said. “The delivery is a lot more definitive in terms of what it’s intended to be.”

Hathorne pointed to the Kentlands neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about 25 miles northwest of Washington D.C.

The Kentlands would be developed in much the same way as Daybreak would be two decades later, with a mix of pocket parks, a town center and a mix of housing types that can support retail.

A missing middle apartment building with about 20 units in Salt Lake City’s East Central neighborhood. By Taylor Anderson.

Daybreak, where Hathorne lives and works as a planner for the Larry H. Miller Companies, is another example.

Daybreak uses a mix of techniques to deliver a mix of housing types. Parking is set away from the street, making sure there aren’t the streets lined with garage-houses (though it still has to be covered parking, taking up space and adding cost).

“As flexible as the zoning is that we have in Daybreak, we can’t do cottage courts because of the parking issue,” Hathorne said.

Salt Lake City neighborhoods are full of missing middle housing, yet in the 1990s the city initiated widespread zoning changes that prevented it from being built for the past three decades.

Missing middle is available in only a small handful of zoning types in Salt Lake City and outlawed in the vast majority of the city. That means if a developer — or an individual homeowner — wants to add infill housing in the capital city, they’ll face an uphill battle to try to get it done.

“Part of the problem is in order to deliver what is needed, oftentimes it is a terrible, terrible fight to get it,” Hathorne said. “Zoning has become a constraint.”

As an example of the fights the current system has set up, Hathorne said: “If you are a Target shopper, heaven forbid you have Walmart shoppers in your neighborhood, they have to have their own neighborhood. While the Nordstrom’s people are screaming about the Target folks and the Walmart people are screaming about the Dollar General folks.”

“People with more money have more ability to choose. As the cost of housing goes up and they need housing, they will start to push down, which then causes a ripple effect, harming people at the lower income levels.”

Mike Hathorne — Chair of CNU-Utah

These types of fights can also lead to clustering and concentration of housing at both ends of the affordability spectrum, with cities allowing affordable housing only in areas with less means to block it. They’re playing out nationwide.

“If you take affordable housing and you simply concentrate it and compartmentalize it the way commodity DNA requires, you are exacerbating a problem as opposed to allowing it to be inclusive to a neighborhood of multiple housing types,” Hathorne said.

Email Taylor Anderson

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.