When it comes to housing, where is the missing middle?

Like many solutions, it’s hiding in plain sight

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Housing specialists, and those who talk and think about housing, talk a lot about the “missing middle”.

That’s housing-speak for the mid-range of housing units; part way between single-family housing and massive apartment blocks of hundreds of units.

The “missing middle” is that magic place between the “too big” and the “too little”. You could call it the housing version of the “Goldilocks” solution. Goldilocks had to find a bed, not too hard and not too soft, but just right.

That’s the promise of the “missing middle”.

The “missing middle” is the core of stable urban centers around the world – and has been for centuries, if not longer. These are human scaled, affordable and, in most cases, relatively attractive and comfortable.

Oddly enough, if you drive through what used to be rural, or at least suburban King County, you might happen upon massive, block after block of identical apartment blocks.

And, if you look around Tacoma and larger Pierce County, you see many of these similarly designed apartment blocks recently built or under construction.

But what you don’t see, at least around Tacoma, is the construction of mid-range – perhaps 4–20-unit apartment buildings.

The irony is that mid-range is what was predominantly built in and around Tacoma – for decades.

I’ve never lived in one, but I’ve always liked those mid-sized vintage apartment buildings that you see all over town – once you start looking for them.

On the East Coast, these are called “brownstones” since so many of them there, and here, are made of, or at least covered in, traditional brick.

In some of the more established neighborhoods of Tacoma, many of these apartments were built as apartments, while others were converted large homes – particularly in the North End and the North Slope Neighborhood.

During and shortly after World War II, many of the classic – and huge – homes of Tacoma were split into rental units. They didn’t know it then, but they were on the cutting edge of housing – more than a generation ahead of the rest of us.

There’s nothing magic about the missing middle

When I hear the term “missing middle” evoked as if it were some kind of one-size-fits-all solution to our housing/homelessness crisis, I know one thing for sure – it isn’t.

I’m sorry to burst this philosophical housing bubble, but there is more to housing than just structures.

The “missing middle” can be just as ugly, intrusive and destabilizing to a neighborhood as the massive, sterile look-alike apartment blocks that seep the “neighborhood” out of any community.

The vast majority of “missing middle” housing projects are rentals. Very few offer ownership as an option to occupancy.

A stable, cared for and yes, appealing neighborhood is one filled with actual neighbors – those who live there and hold a stake in the area.

As the percentage of renters increases, the sense of commitment to the neighborhood decreases – no matter the size of the development.

As in the larger developments, individual (and institutional) investors often buy these units as investments.

To restate the obvious, which many have apparently forgotten, a stable and appealing neighborhood is one filled with actual neighbors – people who live there.

Absentee owners are a disaster to any aspiring or even currently existing neighborhood.

A solid and healthy neighborhood is built with many hands, and many voices. And takes many years.

There is nothing “instant” or even formulaic about an appealing neighborhood.

But one poorly planned project, especially if it lies unoccupied, can cast a shadow on an existing neighborhood – or even leave it literally hollow – devoid of the one thing that really makes a neighborhood – people that live there and care about the place. Preferably people who choose to, and can afford to live there for many years.

Which brings us to yet another area where the “missing middle” evangelists need to tread carefully.

How can any housing unit, on any scale, encourage true investment – the investment not just of dollars, but of lives and time spent, of families and individuals committed to the immediate neighborhood, culture and economy of the surrounding area?

Renting, by definition temporary, does not contribute to long term neighborhood development. Neither does “investment” when the owners do not live there.

I know of real estate developments, both large and small, where “investors” have never even seen their investments. And others where owners, fulfilling the requirements of covenants, stay in their units a few weeks out of a year. Their “holdings” paralyze future development and do nothing that contributes to a healthy sense of neighborhood.

To put it mildly, this is not how a neighborhood develops. But it is how a neighborhood is undermined.

Investors raise the prices, which raises the taxes which, in all too many cases, drives out those who have been there and who have done the real work of building the neighborhood.

Those who build and those who set policies (as in taxes) need to tread carefully here.

In King County, for example, the introduction of “missing middle” zoning means than any area previously zoned as single-family is from now on, re-zoned to accommodate the “missing middle”.

In theory this leads to more, and more affordable, housing. And it might.

But this re-zoning leads to a re-calibration of taxes, where each property, single-family or not, is taxed according to its “missing middle” potential.

To put it simply, not everyone, especially those “anchor” neighbors who have lived in the neighborhood for decades, can afford to stay.

In my college-level classes, when almost any issue or policy or even law came up, I would ask my students to look at it in the context of a very simple question – what is accomplished?

From drug laws to speed limits and in this case, residential zoning, what is accomplished by laws, rules or tax policies?

When it comes to zoning or housing policies any and every agency and community needs to consider what it is intending to accomplish.

Constructing a neighborhood is, in most cases, a very different thing than constructing a building.

Buildings are what a neighborhood is made of – but they are not what makes a neighborhood.