Posted by: Josh Lehner | November 5, 2015

Housing Stock and the Missing Middle

One facet of the housing market and discussion that I find interesting is the comparison of the type of housing in each city (or neighborhood for that matter). Back in September Emily Badger in The Washington Post crunched the numbers for many of the country’s largest cities — not metros, but just the primary city — breaking down the figures into single family, duplexes, mid-rise apartments, high-rise apartments, and the like. I think the comparison is fascinating, but wanted to broaden it to the MSA level given that the majority of folks living in, say, “Portland” really live in Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, Vancouver and so forth.


One item that stands out as both relatively small in actual numbers, yet a bigger focus of urban research are the small multifamily complexes, the dark blue, 1-4 unit multifamily in the chart. (1 unit multifamily really means single family attached, i.e. rowhome/townhome.)  City Observatory’s Daniel Hertz refers to these as the missing middle. In Portland, many of these units were constructed back in the late 1970s housing boom and again in the late 1990s.


Given their small market share, especially in today’s construction, why are these types of housing important? As Daniel writes at City Observatory:

“…small multi-unit buildings can provide lower-cost housing at market rates – and lower construction costs for nonprofit developers building subsidized housing.”

“…duplexes and triplexes can be a low-visual-impact way to add people to a single-family-home neighborhood. The added density, in turn, can make those communities viable for walkable neighborhood commercial districts…”

“…can be one key to helping older Americans age-in-place, staying in the same community that they’ve been in, but trading a larger, single family dwelling, for a smaller, but still very much in character unit…”

“…is a way to diversify and urbanize low-density neighborhoods without drastically changing the appearance or character of quiet, “suburban”-looking streets that residents of single-family-home areas often value.”

I think these points are particularly practical and interesting, to me personally as one side of my street is detached single family and the other are 4-plexes and townhomes, but also in the broader context given the housing market and ongoing discussions today. Of course it goes without saying, other housing types are important — even more so — given the vast majority of where people live and new construction today is either detached single family or medium to large apartment complexes. The missing middle is just one small aspect or piece of the overall puzzle, but seems to be largely absent in many conversations.


  1. […] what type of housing do people actually live in? Previously we took a quick look at the housing stock itself, broken down into more categories. However, here I wanted to know how housing changes by age. […]

  2. […] preferrable to the pangs of decay seen through the Rust Belt and elsewhere. That said, as we have discussed before, there are also some real economic and societal benefits to missing middle […]

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