Community discussion around housing: Identifying existing missing middle housing

Missing middle housing is a relatively new term, but these types of homes may already exist in your community — if you know what to look for!

For decorative purposes.
This residence has all the elements of missing middle housing; it is house scale with multiple units in a walkable neighborhood.

What is missing middle housing?

“Missing Middle Housing is a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units—compatible in scale and form with detached single-family homes—located in a walkable neighborhood.” –Missing Middle Housing

Missing middle housing is a term coined by community planner Daniel Parolek and popularized through his 2020 book, “Missing Middle Housing: Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis.” These housing types get their name from occupying the middle area between detached single-family homes and larger multi-unit developments, like midrise apartments. Building types like duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and cottage courtyards fall into that middle area; their scale and form are similar to single-family homes but include multiple units. These housing types are called “missing” due to the post-World War II era trend toward detached single-family homes over other types, often encouraged by local land use regulations like zoning.

Michigan, like many places across the country, is facing housing challenges. As the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) explains in their State Wide Housing Plan Overview, “Michigan has a pressing need to develop, rehabilitate, and preserve housing across the state at price points for every level of income.” Missing middle housing is often seen as one piece of solving the housing puzzle by increasing the number and variety of housing units in a community. For communities who have identified increasing missing middle housing as a goal, a key first step is to take stock of existing missing middle housing types in your community and document those local examples to share with the community.

An inventory of existing missing middle housing

This type of housing may already exist in your community. Documenting existing examples of missing middle housing in your community can be a key step towards deciding if expanding this type of housing is appropriate for your community. “Missing Middle Housing: Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis” lays out steps for beginning this identification process using Google Maps, OpenStreetMap, Zoom Earth, ArcGIS, or another similar mapping application, summarized below:

[Note: Exact steps may vary slightly depending on the application used. Please consult the appropriate help documentation for the specifics of navigation for a particular application.]

  1. Locate the community or neighborhood of interest.
  2. Zoom in on the main street or other walkable commercial areas in the community, missing middle housing types are typically more likely to be built in areas that don’t require a car.
  3. Using satellite imagery, begin analyzing the surrounding neighborhoods for signs of the “missing middle.” Things to look for include:
    • Buildings with multiple rooftops
    • Buildings oriented around a courtyard
    • Buildings that are larger than neighboring residences
  4. As you identify potential missing middle housing, zoom in closer and use a tool like Google Street View to investigate further for signs of the missing middle like multiple doors, mailboxes, or address numbers/letters. Remember to keep screenshots and notes of the missing middle properties.
  5. Satellite and street level images may be several years old. As a final step you may consider ‘ground truthing,’ or taking an on-the-ground visual survey of the houses/areas you identified from your internet research. While out, you can confirm if the residential structure truly is missing middle or not, and capture current photos for an inventory of existing missing middle housing. The article “Making the Camera Your Friend” by Michael Heater from the American Planning Association has suggestions for taking both high quality and ethical photographs.

Implementation

Your community’s preliminary inventory of missing middle housing types can be indexed and shared as reference for which missing middle housing designs historically look like in your community. These historical patterns could inform housing policy decisions for which new types of homes would be appropriate. This exercise also helps identify where missing middle housing currently exists and could possibly be allowed or encouraged to expand. Identifying existing missing middle housing also helps identify who the folks are living in these housing types; understanding their stories can help a community understand the roles these housing forms play for residents presently, have played historically, and could play in the future.

This is a  step towards a broader study of neighborhood demographics and structure typologies as described in Michigan State University (MSU) Extension articles series, “Study neighborhood typology to discover a library of information on form." These articles describe a broader analysis of neighborhoods and the built environment and can inform housing and land use decisions.

Upcoming virtual offerings can be found by searching for “Housing” in MSU Extension’s upcoming events. If you are interested in bringing one of these offerings directly to your community, please contact Tyler Augst at augsttyl@msu.edu or (269) 657-8213.

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