Houses are Too Expensive. Apartments are Too Small. Is This a Fix?

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A line of moving trucks driving down a street, as well as one single-family house being built by construction workers, on a street filled with other single-family houses.


For the past several decades, the vast majority of homes built in the United States fit one of two categories: big buildings with lots of apartments or single-family houses with a yard. But as cities and suburbs around the country face soaring rents and home prices, they are looking to a third type of housing: “missing middle.”

Missing middle doesn’t refer to the middle class. Rather, it’s about a certain kind of housing — including townhouses, duplexes and small garden apartments — that has been illegal or difficult to build in many neighborhoods because of zoning laws.

As the case of Arlington, Va., shows, efforts to add this type of housing are drawing a lot of buzz as well as plenty of pushback. In this comic, we explore what happened in this D.C. suburb as it looked to boost its missing middle housing stock.

Narration on a comic reads: In most places around the U.S., it’s gotten much harder and more expensive to buy or rent a home. The problem, according to economists, is simple. The illustration shows a young person on a laptop browses through Zillow. Houses and apartments are drawn in the air around the computer screen with expensive price tags and an arrow pointing upward.
Narration on a comic reads: Many cities just don’t have enough housing to accommodate all the people who want to live there — near jobs, schools and public transit. Researchers say we need a lot more homes to make prices go down. Illustration: A line of moving trucks driving down a street, as well as one single-family house being built by construction workers, on a street filled with other single-family houses.
Narration: Some local governments are looking to something called “missing middle” housing as a fix. It includes a range of housing types that are smaller than big apartment buildings but contain more units than single-family houses. Illustration: A graphic that shows the spectrum of housing density, beginning with single-family detached housing on one hand and mi-to-high-rise apartments on the other. In between the two are just a few “missing middle” housing types, a bit washed out. An inset shows various types: Side-by-side duplexes, stacked fourplexes (which look like single-family houses, but a little bigger and subdivided into apartments), a few townhouses side by side, and taller garden-style apartments.
Narration: Yet local zoning laws have made it difficult or impossible to build this type of housing in many neighborhoods across the U.S. That’s why advocates say it’s “missing.” Illustration: comic panel is divided up into three different sections with lines in between them — one with some factories (labeled “industrial zone”), one with apartment buildings with ground-floor storefronts (labeled “mixed-use zone”), and one or two with single-family houses with white-picket fences, trees and grassy yards (labeled “single-family residential zone”).
Narration: Zoning laws banning “missing middle” housing were set up decades ago across the country, often part of as an implicit strategy to price people of color and low-income people out of certain neighborhoods. Illustration: a row of cookie-cutter suburban single family houses. One of them has a “FOR SALE” sign, with a white realtor facing a Black family. There’s a sepia tone, maybe, to make this panel evoke an older vibe. One family member says, “It’s too expensive.” The White realtor replies: “Then you can’t live here.”
Narration: One of the places that managed to change these rules is Arlington, Va., just outside Washington. But the countywide debate showed that making way for missing middle is anything but straightforward. Illustration: The Arlington County Board sits in a county government room with a packed audience. Hands raise signs for and against the change: Arlington for Everyone; In this home density means diversity, more neighbors=more fun…” And on the other side: R.I.P. The Arlington Way; No Missing Middle Upzoning. One member, labeled Christian Dorsey: ““This has been a very long but meaningful process.” Libby Garvey replies: “It’s been, what, eighteen months? Two years?”
Narration: Groups of longtime homeowners protested the changes and sued over the policy. They worry more homes and greater density could ruin their single-family neighborhoods. Illustration: A rally outside a county government building with people carrying megaphones and signs against missing middle. Text bubbles with concerns about missing middle come from some of those people: “Schools will get overcrowded.” / “Trees will get chopped down.” / “Too much traffic.” / “It’s a giveaway for developers.” / “Density is not affordability.” The signs read: County board stop missing middle; Save our tree canopy; Tell county: No! Missing middle hurts: Diversity, environment, schools, parking, taxes; No upzoning, no duplexes here; Stop upzoning now.
Narration: Advocates in Arlington are hopeful about the legislation, while others point out it's no silver bullet. There's no guarantee developers will build missing middle house -- or that these homes will be more affordable. Illustration: A street filled with single-family houses with one under construction consisting of three side-by-side townhouses. There’s a “Coming soon!” sign out in front. The person from the first panel is walking by with a realtor as she asks: Uh… can I afford this?
Narration: Still, many economists contend that building a bunch of new homes for middle- and upper-income households -- in Arlington or elsewhere -- can reduce competition for older homes and keep them more affordable. Over time, that can make a noticeable impact — and do so without using up taxpayer money. Illustration: The same street from the previous panel. This time, the townhouses are fully built, and one house has been turned into a duplex. Someone else is moving into the duplex with a moving truck.
Narration: As housing costs keep going up, a growing number of cities and states are trying their own approaches and compromises to add more missing middle housing. Whether they can win over voters and lawsuits — and create a dent in the market — is an open question. Narration: Standalone map of the U.S. with several states highlighted and insets of various Missing Middle buildings. Insets: Portland, Oregon: Fourplexes in residential neighborhoods; allowed to have a bigger footprint than single-family houses; Massachusetts: Middle housing in neighborhoods near Boston commuter rail stations; Minneapolis, Min.: Triplexes in residential neighborhoods; no on-site parking required; same footprint as single-family houses; Charlotte, N.C.: Triplexes in any residential neighborhood.

Editing by Hannah Good and Jennifer Barrios. Design editing by Christine Ashack and Christian Font. Copy editing by Jordan Melendrez.