The Missing Middle

Will U.S. Cities Design Their Way Out of the Affordable Housing Crisis?

“Missing middle” architecture could ease rents—and allow more Americans to build real estate wealth. 

Next City, Jan. 18, 2016

The house I’ve lived in for almost 10 years isn’t a single-family home or an apartment in a tall building. It’s something in between, a two-story “condominium townhouse” on wooded grounds in a suburb of Washington, D.C. There are 166 townhouses in my complex, and whenever one is listed for sale, it gets snapped up. This is a popular place to live.

But the funny thing is, it shouldn’t be — not if you trust the conventional wisdom about real estate. The townhouses here are 75 years old and they look it. Built quickly and cheaply as military housing during World War II, they’re small (in the range of 1,000 square feet) and architecturally plain. Except for a few that have undergone renovations, they lack pretty much every feature now deemed essential in a “nice” American home: kitchen islands with granite countertops, walk-in closets, bathrooms galore.

My family doesn’t have a yard. We have a patio out back, and share a landscaped plaza with dozens of our neighbors. We don’t have a dedicated parking space. Yet I’m confident that if we put the house on the market tomorrow, it would sell, and fast. How can that be?

Just a few years ago, a name emerged for the kind of community I live in. Neighborhoods like mine represent “the missing middle” in American housing, say architects and planners: not a big subdivision, not a high-rise apartment tower, but a middle option in terms of scale and density.

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