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Missing middle crunch requires all of us to solve it

Missing middle housing – and the fact we don’t have enough of it in West Michigan and in communities across the country – has been in the news a lot lately.

From lakeshore efforts aimed at breaking down barriers to homeownership for “missing middle” wage earners to Michigan’s competitive housing market keeping millennials out to California cities rethinking single-family neighborhoods, it’s easy to see why we need to address our housing shortfalls – and do it now.

But what exactly is missing middle and why are so many people talking about it? Before we dig into the second question, let’s spend a little time breaking down the term itself.

Missing middle housing is diverse, fits seamlessly into existing residential neighborhoods and supports walkability. It can include duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts, multiplexes and other small-footprint homes. Most times, missing middle housing has four to eight units in a building or, in the case of cottage courts, has four to eight units on a lot. Most missing middle building types are two stories in height.

It’s called “missing” because it has not been allowed in many communities since the mid-1940s and “middle” because it sits in the middle of the housing-type spectrum between detached single-family homes and mid-rise to high-rise apartment buildings.

While conversations about missing middle housing and why it’s important all communities have enough of it aren’t new, they’re becoming louder and more frequent because wages aren’t keeping up with housing costs. That’s because – as you’ve seen me write in the past – we haven’t built enough housing to keep up with demand at all price points. Plus, our longtime focus on single-family housing has limited our ability to meet the needs of our growing communities and meet the desire of residents of all ages to live within walking distance of restaurants, shops and public transportation.

That’s where people like Bruce and Brenda Thompson come in. They’re co-founders of Urbaneer, a local company that’s helping to address our missing middle housing crunch. It’s doing this by creating living spaces that fit into how many families and individuals actually live and helping to meet the increased demand for urban living within smaller and more efficient footprints.

The Thompsons don’t just create these living spaces – they live in one. The couple went from a 5,000-square-foot home in East Grand Rapids to an 800-square-foot compact dwelling in Grand Rapids’ historic Heritage Hill neighborhood.

Why? In Bruce’s words, this living space “just makes sense when Americans spend 80% of their time in the kitchen.” The couple wanted to get back to the way they lived in Barcelona, Spain, in the 1990s – when their compact space had everything they needed and was within walking distance to their favorite spots.

In addition to the smaller footprint and cost savings associated with it, the Thompsons enjoy the walkability to many of the amenities that make Grand Rapids so special. With its movable walls and flexible open floor plan, their two-story dwelling offers more like 1,200 square feet of living space – which isn’t that much smaller than the average-sized U.S. home 50 years ago.

The Thompsons' home features the kitchen, living room and bedroom all in one space and offers “lifecycle cost” savings such as taxes, insurance, heating and cooling. During really cold winters, their heating bill is half of what it would be in a conventional home.

They built their compact home as the primary structure on a small urban lot, but the design is intended to work just as well as a secondary unit that can easily fit in a typical backyard. Often referred to as an accessory dwelling unit, this type of structure can be a great way to support loved ones or neighbors who want to age in place within their own neighborhood or young adults who are ready to move out of a shared-wall apartment building but need to continue to save money before they can afford to purchase their own home.

With skyrocketing lumber prices, this type of compact dwelling also means lower building costs, putting it within reach of missing middle wage earners – those who earn an average of $15 to $20.

The problem? The way our communities have zoned land for housing has hindered our ability to provide more missing middle housing – and offer a high quality of life for all residents.

But things are changing – and not a moment too soon. The City of Grand Haven has approved zoning updates to allow for accessory dwelling units and missing middle housing types in more districts. The City of Holland’s Planning Commission has unanimously recommended City Commission approval of the proposed Unified Development Ordinance and the Grand Rapids City Commission is considering a Housing Fund – both of which would allow for more housing choices.

Missing middle housing provides more housing choices. When we have more choices, we create thriving and sustainable neighborhoods for people and businesses. In the words of Bruce, “workforce housing matters to everyone.”

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This is a great solution for sustainable living and reducing your dwelling cost. John Phillips is my one and only recommendation for guiding you through purchasing and installation.

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