The Missing Middle: An Affordable Housing Solution?

About the Author

CED Program Interns & Students

Throughout the United States, the cost of housing is rising faster than incomes. While there are many discussions taking place around this issue, an important one is how the types of housing being developed can have an impact on affordability, particularly in areas where demand is high – namely, walkable places with transit service.

According to proponents, the “Missing Middle” is part of the solution to meeting the demand for housing that is affordable. Missing Middle housing is composed of a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types that are compatible in scale to single-family homes. Some examples include duplexes, carriage houses, townhouses, and bungalows (more information on types, characteristics, and assembly of these homes are available at the Missing Middle website.)


The concept of Missing Middle housing is not new. The range of building types were previously fundamental parts of pre-1940s neighborhoods, but have decreased significantly due to zoning law changes in cities. Missing Middle housing is lauded for being able to create moderate density areas that can support public transit and various amenities within walkable distances when combined together, even when blended in among single-family homes. Due to the fact that Missing Middle housing typically have a footprint comparable in scale to single-family homes, they are seen as being easier to integrate into existing neighborhoods and increase density.

So how can these units help with affordability? Those in favor of Missing Middle housing have several reasons:

  • Smaller unit sizes: The smaller unit sizes that are characteristic of Missing Middle housing types are seen as being able to assist developers in keeping costs down and improving the pro forma performance of a project, while keeping the housing price affordable to a larger market of buyers and renters.
  • Less parking: Missing Middle housing is designed to be built within a walkable context with proximity to transportation options and commercial amenities. According to Missing Middle Housing architects Opticos Design, buildings become inefficient from a development potential standpoint if large parking areas are required because the need for additional space drops neighborhoods below the recommended density threshold for Missing Middle housing. Having less parking diverts the cost of land for off-street parking, which is another contributor to lowering the cost per unit.
  • Simple construction type: Missing Middle housing is typically wood-frame construction, which means that construction costs are lower than for larger buildings where additions such as concrete podiums are needed. In addition, the simple construction types, free of added financing challenges and the risk of more complex construction types, opens the possibility for incremental developers to contribute to the supply of affordable housing.

In addition to its affordability factors, Missing Middle housing is being cited as a source of local ownership and business opportunity. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans can be used for buildings up to four units. Theoretically, if a homeowner qualified to purchase a Missing Middle home, that building would contain the homeowner’s unit, as well as up to three more units to provide additional income.

Missing Middle housing is also not likely to be undertaken by large-scale developers, which is where the opportunity exists for incremental developers, community development corporations, and local banks to collaborate and increase development of affordable housing while growing local businesses.

While Missing Middle housing would appear to provide additional options in the housing market, zoning and land-use codes in cities that cater to low-density residential zoning could prevent new construction and would require a review of current policies. Despite this potential barrier, Missing Middle housing may present an avenue for areas to increase affordability and provide vibrant, walkable, urban spaces for citizens.

Ashley Tucker is a dual-degree student in the Master of Public Administration and Master of City & Regional Planning programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.

2 Responses to “The Missing Middle: An Affordable Housing Solution?”

    • In North Carolina, Asheville has an incentive program (Land Use Incentive Grant) that provides cash payments in exchange for including affordable housing in new development (more cash is provided for more units reserved for households with lower incomes). The program doesn’t target these specific “missing middle” residential product types–it is general in nature and could be used to support development of these products. One point of caution with the Asheville program is that it offers a fixed amount based on a formula that does not take into account whether the incentive is necessary to obtain the affordable housing, which is a factor in determining whether the incentive amounts to an unconstitutional gift. For more on the legal authority of North Carolina local governments to pay cash to developers of affordable housing, see these blog posts: Local Government Support for Privately Constructed Affordable Housing and Conveyance of Local Government Property for Affordable Housing.

Leave a Reply

We will read all comments submitted to us, but we will publish only those comments that serve to advance our readers’ understanding of a post and are consistent with our institutional commitment to non-advocacy.

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>