The Missing Middle: Creating More Attainable Housing Options

Living room in a duplex, which is an example of a missing middle housing type

Denver is experiencing a critical shortage of attainable and affordable housing. Like many major metropolitans across the country, the city faces unsustainable rises in housing prices, putting homeownership out of reach for many. With ever-shrinking inventory levels, the pandemic has brought this reality into stark relief. 

Building our way out of this crisis is possible, and it will require more density in established neighborhoods. Construction defect laws have made condominium development a landmine of risk for developers. As such, condo construction is at a relative standstill, with builders choosing safer single-unit parcels with predictable costs and cycle times. Given these constraints, more creative land planning and design solutions must happen. Missing middle housing can make this possible by increasing density to lower the cost of entry to homeownership for mid and lower-income households.

The Missing Middle, Defined

Even with construction defect laws being as they are, there’s still a solution that can help bridge the new construction gap between single-family homes and high-density condos. Enter missing middle housing, a more diverse assortment of new housing options that fall between single-family homes and large condominium developments. 

Missing middle housing prevents displacement and creates more sustainable and equitable neighborhoods. This allows people with median income levels the ability to live in the communities they work. Walkability is a key feature so households can access employment, dining, and recreation on foot, bike, or public transportation. Missing middle housing types also keep suburban sprawl in check and lowers greenhouse gas emissions by reducing car usage. Yet even with demonstrated benefits, there’s resistance and a lack of political will to enact meaningful change. This type of housing has been largely excluded from development throughout much of metro Denver.

Zoning Challenges

Single-unit is the predominant zoning type throughout greater Denver, and it is the primary obstacle to higher-density construction in the region. Parking is also a significant challenge. Older zoning codes often have higher parking counts that eat up valuable land and aren’t necessarily reflective of today’s urban homebuyer.

Without reform, most developers are unable or unwilling to undertake the time-intensive permit and design review processes that slow down their project life cycle and increase their to-market timeframe. Zone overlays and form-based codes are two ways cities can encourage medium-density housing construction without requiring zone overhauls and reform. 

Missing middle housing typically doesn’t need as much parking, thanks to walkable locations and/or proximity to public transportation options. Pictured: 2 bed, 2.5 bath, 1 car garage townhomes at Berkley Shores in Denver, CO.

Community Acceptance

Nothing brings a community together quite like when a new developer comes into town! Residents naturally want to protect their neighborhoods, but sometimes the line between looking out for best interests and outright NIMBYism can be blurred and prevent good development. It’s important to communicate with residents and gain their support. The most productive way to do this is to respect the neighborhood, its history, and architecture through good design. Missing middle housing designs often have a lower perceived density and should blend into or complement existing streetscapes, both of which can help reduce community resistance to new housing developments. 

Site Issues

Missing middle housing designs are often infill development projects. Infill development can bring its own set of site challenges that could intimidate well-meaning builders unfamiliar with the complexities of building in urban areas. An experienced architectural firm can help solve site-specific issues to create housing options that balance land and zoning requirements, aesthetics, and affordability. 

Missing Middle Housing Types

Missing middle housing is built to scales that are consistent with neighboring homes and range from four to eight units. Accessibility and entry are available from the street to enhance their curb appeal and to fit within the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood. For the sake of reducing litigation concerns, we are highlighting housing options outside of condominium development and other stacked housing styles. 

Townhomes

With their attached design most closely resembling a single-family home, townhomes are the most popular missing middle housing option. More units per parcel offer an attainable price point for buyers and drive up revenue for home builders while maintaining acceptable risk levels. The contemporary design of our DELO Townhomes project includes spacious open floor plans, two or three-car attached garages, and two outdoor living spaces—all within walking distance to historic downtown Louisville with its many dining and shopping options. 

DELO townhomes in Louisville, CO.

The good news is that townhome construction is up! In fact, townhome construction rose to a 2.5-year high during the fourth quarter of 2020, and this trend is expected to continue as the demand for more urban and walkable village-style housing increases. 

Duplex Housing

Duplexes or paired homes are housing structures with two dwellings sharing a common wall on a single lot. Architecture and appearance are that of a detached single-family home, and residents typically enjoy their own alley-loaded garage and small outdoor living space. Exteriors that incorporate different yet complementary materials and colors, like the elevations we designed for Koelbel Urban Homes at 5390’ in Denver, CO, give a distinctive character to each unit with uniformity.

This duplex paired home is part of 5390′, an urban infill development in Denver, CO.

Cottage Court Homes

A central shared courtyard is the defining feature of this missing middle housing type. Street entry is accessible to smaller one- to two-story homes that surround the shared outdoor space with direct-access alley-loaded garages or parking access. The courtyard often takes the place of a backyard, though some home designs will include a small patio or covered porch. 

Building Inroads

Creating missing middle housing options in Denver requires a collaborative effort among city officials and planners, architects, developers, and residents. We’re seeing progress with fast-track permitting for affordable housing projects, zoning reform discussions, and amending construction defect laws, but we must move quickly to build diverse housing choices that are attainable for more segments of our community. 

Looking for creative land planning and design solutions for your next project? We’re here to help! Contact us at 303.442.5882 or via the form below.

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