Why missing middle housing hits home for me 

Registration is open for the Building Salt Lake Events Missing Middle Housing Discussion and Tour on Saturday, June 10. Space is limited!

When I was covering the Oregon Legislature and living in Salem, I found I was spending most of my weekends (and often weeknights) driving an hour north into Portland. 

The City of Roses had more energy, more things to do, better restaurants, great parks and outdoor access. I also played hockey and joined a waterski team that still skis on the Willamette River.

“We need to move to Portland,” I told my wife.

But there was a problem: Portland was years ahead of Salt Lake City when it came to a spike in rent prices. The city of hipsterly love was getting out of reach for many people, low-paid newspaper reporters among them.

That’s where missing middle housing saved the day. When newly built and market-rate rentals were fetching way more than I could afford, I found a one-bedroom rental in a duplex in the city’s Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood.

This scenario played out in Salt Lake City, too. When I nearly moved here from Chicago to work at the Salt Lake Tribune, I signed a lease to rent an adobe duplex on Yale Avenue in East Liberty at below market rent. That job fell through (hedge funds should not own newspapers), but I ended up here nonetheless. 

This duplex on Yale Avenue would have been the first home my wife and I rented on our own after college. Image from Google Maps.

Missing middle housing — like duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and up — is often one of the first rungs on the ladder for people who are forming new households. But by and large, this type of housing is largely illegal to build today. Existing examples were built before widespread zoning changes and are now locked in a kind of amber.

One reason it’s called “missing middle” is because the scale of the buildings matches single-family homes, which are often 1-2 stories plus an attic, or about 2.5 stories tall. Neighborhoods throughout Salt Lake City have examples of this type of housing stock hiding in plain sight, even if neighbors don’t even realize they’re there.

Some of the least expensive housing options in the Yalecrest neighborhood, for example, are missing middle.

In the Central City neighborhood, it’s common to see so-called “mansion apartments” that are 2.5 stories tall and include upwards of 19 units in a single building. The 9th & 9th business district in East Liberty is full of walkable local businesses that are supported by people living in duplexes and stacked fourplexes nearby.

These types of houses were largely legal across Salt Lake City and the United States for centuries before widespread downzoning took away the right of property owners to build them. In Salt Lake City, that change happened in the mid-1990s.

That’s another reason this type of housing is called “missing middle.” It’s missing from zoning codes in cities across Utah. Single-family zoning excludes this inherently affordable type of housing from being built on a wide scale today.

A cottage style row of home single-family attached homes in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Wells neighborhood. When homes in this development come up for sale, they are often among the least expensive homes in the city. They are illegal to build today. Photo by Taylor Anderson.

Salt Lake City has a couple of zoning types that allow for more than one home to be built on one lot. (I see you, RMF-30 and FB-UN1.) Accessory dwelling units are allowed on a wide scale, but unlike all other rental housing the city requires that ADU owners or a relative live on the property.

The vast majority of land that allows residential uses is single-family here. But there’s a movement in Salt Lake City and abroad to find ways to return to a time when more housing was being added to neighborhoods.

As part of our rollout of BSL Events, we’re hosting an expert discussion and neighborhood tour that will focus on missing middle housing and why it disappeared from American zoning codes. We’ll then ride on bikes and complimentary scooters provided by Lime to see missing middle in action. The event is Saturday, June 10, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Attendees can register for the discussion and ride or just the discussion, if desired.

Building Salt Lake will continue to highlight the challenges and opportunities of missing middle housing throughout 2023 and beyond, starting with the tour.

  • When: Saturday, June 10, starting at 11 a.m.
  • What: BSL Events | Missing Middle Housing Discussion and Tour
  • Why: Hear from an expert planner about the ins and outs of missing middle housing and changes that cities can make to allow it on a wider scale today. Then see missing middle in action during a neighborhood tour.

The entry to my unit in a duplex in Portland’s Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood.

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.