ADUs and Missing Middle housing will never solve our affordability woes

ADUs and Missing Middle housing will never solve our affordability woes
Photo by J King / Unsplash

ADUs, or Accessory Dwelling Units, are usually small housing units people build in their basements, backyards, or above their garages to accommodate family or to rent out for supplemental income. So-called “missing middle" housing (from here on referred to Middle Housing) are all those housing types that are Goldilocks-sized, fitting in somewhere between single-family residences and larger multifamily buildings. These include cottage clusters, quadplexes, and other attached housing that have a higher density than detached single-family homes. These home types have been in the news a lot the last decade or so and are often lauded as solutions to our housing affordability problems.

From @Planning_Peeps on Instagram

These unit types have become more popular in recent years and a growing number of cities have made them legal to build. ADUs are great because they often allow aging parents or grandparents to live onsite with their kids or grandkids while maintaining some semblance of independence and privacy. Still others use them as short-term rentals to supplement their incomes and make their own housing more affordable. Middle Housing products also make housing more affordable by allowing more people to get into homeownership or into previously out-of-reach neighborhoods at a cost that can be considerably less than detached single-family homes.

Yet while these housing products do provide greater housing options at more affordable prices, urbanist online publications like Strong Towns would have us believe that these types of housing are illegal in most places and like to craft a narrative that if only cities and towns would change their policies, all our walkable city and affordable housing dreams would come true. And while there are many suburban areas across the country that don’t allow Middle Housing types, you’d be hard pressed to find any large central city or older inner-ring suburb anywhere worth living that doesn’t allow these housing types, and ADUs are allowed most places in America today.

Overall, it’s a great thing. These types of homes used to be more widely available in the early 20th Century, but became illegal with the rise of suburban areas across the county in the post WWII era, likely as a way to zone out lower income people in an attempt to maintain property values. Now, they are much more widely accepted, with some states are even mandating that cities allow them, which has the biggest impact in wealthy areas that try to zone them out.

But even if the products themselves are a little bit more affordable than detached single-family homes, Middle Housing is frequently lauded as a silver bullet to our housing affordability crisis, which I just don’t believe to be true. In my eyes, while certainly necessary, they are just the socially acceptable alternative for many communities not willing to build or take on the level of urban density that is truly needed.

In the Pacific Northwest, for example, all of the big cities have allowed ADUs for decades, and Cities like Vancouver, Canada and Seattle, Washington are still some of the most expensive places to live in North America. Likewise, Oregon has legalized duplexes on any lot zoned for single family residential, and depending on the square footage of the lot, many properties can legally accommodate quadplexes. Oregon has even removed requirements for on-site parking for any property within 1/2 mile of a transit stop. But these cities don't allow apartment buildings above a certain height in most neighborhoods outside of their downtowns and certain commercial districts.

Furthermore, just allowing these housing types doesn’t mean that the market can or will build these products at levels that will have a meaningful impact on housing prices, particularly in areas of high demand on the coasts. Having worked at a municipality who processes these types of development applications, very few have come through and are actually in the pipeline.

Cities in North America need to get more comfortable with real density, like mid-rise and high-rise apartments and condos, because they are coming. The U.S. population in 1950 was less than half it is now and we cannot continue to accommodate that population in detached single-family homes in ever far-flung suburbs. Last I checked, we are not building many new cities from scratch, and people need to live somewhere.

Unfortunately, urban density gives Americans indigestion. Even so-called progressive places like Berkeley, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan are frequently in the news as their vocal residents come out to oppose new housing projects. Portlanders often lament “tear downs” in their neighborhoods - a phrase that means removing a traditional single-family residence to build higher density multifamily buildings. Berkeley was recently in the news after Cal started moving forward with student housing in a neighborhood park after years of protests from neighbors. This was so controversial that they stacked shipping containers at double height around the entire perimeter of the property as a safety measure.

People's Park in Berkeley, California. Image from the Associated Press

But unlike conservative opposition, which is usually based in matters of income and class segregation, liberals more often use topics such as environmental protection, historic preservation, or neighborhood character as thinly-veiled arguments to maintain the status quo.

I understand people don't like change, but cities are dynamic places that need to adapt to our needs and change is on the horizon. Middle Housing, while one tool to assist in our housing woes, will never solve our housing affordability problems.