Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Missing Middle Housing Hiding in Plain Sight

Earlier this year, I wrote about missing middle housing, a term coined by Opticos Design of Berkeley to describe housing that is neither conventional single-family homes nor multi-story apartments, but fills the gap between those two with duplexes, granny flats, and their like.  Well-executed missing middle housing, meaning housing that is compatible with the overall feel of a neighborhood, can be crucial to a community because it adds more people to the street while also widening the housing costs options, expanding the demographic breadth of neighborhoods.

The earlier post gathered significant readership.  But I didn’t need the readers’ opinions to know that missing middle housing was an important element of urbanism.  I was already looking with new eyes at my neighborhood, spotting missing middle housing where it had previously eluded me.

So, on this day with Christmas nearly upon us and the heavy lifting of urbanist philosophy too much for my light-hanging, gift-wrapping, meal-preparing fatigue, I’ll take a neighborhood tour, sharing some of my favorites. 

But before beginning the tour, I should explain how several aspects of my neighborhood make it particularly well-prepared for missing middle housing.

To begin, it’s an older neighborhood, with many homes going back a century or more.  Whereas modern subdivisions line up in military fashion, conforming closely to minimum setbacks and giving dictatorial oversight to homeowners’ associations, leaving little opportunity for later generations to adlib, older neighborhoods are filled with often quirky one-off homes that offer room for creativity.

Next, the neighborhood originally had a strong agricultural slant, so many back yards were deep enough to allow egg production, the mainstay of the Petaluma economy a century ago.  The deep lots now give opportunities for missing middle housing.

Also, the agricultural focus of a century ago created a need for more modest worker housing, broadening the range of existing homes and making missing middle housing an easier fit.

Also, agricultural neighborhoods tend to have streets that are more radial, originally aligned to provide efficient market access from the early farmsteads.  Radial streets, when subdivided into rectilinear lots, have odd leftover spaces that can provide settings for middle housing creativity.

Lastly, the City of Petaluma, recognizing the already strong neighborhood culture of supplemental housing units and not choosing to make those units “grandfathered non-conforming uses”, applied zoning to the neighborhood that allows many types of supplemental housing.  There can still be institutional barriers to missing middle housing, starting with impact fees, but zoning isn’t one of them.

With the background established, let’s take a tour.

Just a few doors from our home is what seems to be tidy little single-family home on a corner.  But it’s not.  Around the corner is a second home, of a completely different architectural style, occupying the same lot.  The two homes sharing a lot, each with a tiny backyard and separate garage, creates a second home out of thin air.

Three short blocks away, and shown above, is what appears at first glance to be a single-family house consistent with the neighborhood.  But a second glance, and a careful count, shows three front doors.  It’s a triplex, with three modest units, almost exactly a half-mile from the center of downtown, so within the range of walkability.

Even closer to downtown is a home that was neglected for years.  With the exterior sagging, windows broken, and weeds poised for a final offensive, I thought the next step would be demolition.  But the bones were apparently strong.  A major rehab brought the house back to life as a duplex with doors facing both streets.

Last is a home that I know well.  When my cousins bought the property, there were only the homes at the front and rear.  They then built, with the tiniest bit of assistance from me, a garage/office between the first two homes.  The new structure isn’t a residence, but with only a few modifications and the payment of impact fees, it could be.  Three tidy homes on a single lot.  If that became the norm, middle housing wouldn’t be missing anymore.

This isn’t meant as a comprehensive survey of missing middle housing in my neighborhood.  There are more missing middle homes that I can still share.  But this is a reasonable introduction for a holiday week.  And perhaps an inducement for readers to begin looking about their own neighborhoods to see if the need for missing middle housing is being met or needs encouragement.

My next post will fall on Christmas Day.  I’ll write of a gift that I hope to give myself on Christmas Eve.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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