How to bring the ‘missing link’ to housing development in Virginia
Independent house or apartment? When looking for a place to call home, most people know what type of housing they want, but what if there were more choices in the market?
Last month, Norfolk City Council approved a Missing middle pattern book full of free designs and drawings for dozens of so-called “mid-range housing”: duplexes, quadplexes and the city’s iconic “Norfolk six-packs”. The move marks the latest attempt by a Virginia community to encourage more mid-size housing, the range of options that fall between single-family homes and large apartment buildings.
But can paper plans really catalyze new construction and help solve the housing crisis?
The missing middle
Over the past decade, the percentage of Virginia residents burdened with their housing expenses – defined as households spending more than 30% of their income on shelter – had actually declined. TO 27.4 percent, this figure was still too high (and even higher for the 44 percent low-income Virginians burdened with costs). After last year’s record 16.6 percent Rising median house prices across the Commonwealth, the renewed enthusiasm of local authorities to explore the state’s housing stock seems long overdue.
“Demographics have changed and the family structure is not changing like the nuclear family we anticipated in the past,” said Mel Price, director of Work Program Architects, the company behind Norfolk’s new model book. . “There are also economic changes in terms of stagnant wages and rising housing costs. In the past, the lack of intermediate housing allowed our neighborhoods to adapt over time. A single family home can be split into duplexes, for example, and that flexibility has given us more room to grow.
The concept of a missing link in our housing market arose out of the reality that over the past 80 years America has built little housing on a scale between single-family structures and multi-story apartments. Although the duplexes, quadplexes and courtyard apartments that make up this category of housing are generally found to be more affordable thanks to lower land and construction costs per unit, the term focuses only on the type of building, not income. of those who move in.
“If you leave a missing link meeting with an idea, it’s a house-wide development,” said Dan Parolek, director of Opticos Design and author of the book on the topic: Intermediate housing missing. “People often visualize that adding more units means the building will get bigger and bigger, but some of the examples identified in the model book demonstrate that you can have a building at the scale of a house. with multiple units. The concept has been so useful and popular because it gives planners and architects the tools to talk to homeowners about more housing without creepy words like density.
Zoned to fail
Arlington is another location in Virginia exploring an expansion of the housing types it allows in residential areas. Currently, just one year after three years study of the missing intermediate housing, the urban county faces demands from residents for more varied and affordable housing options that could help preserve the region’s racial and socio-economic diversity. Missing mid-size units currently make up about a third of Arlington’s housing stock, but the abrupt transition from skyscrapers adjacent to the metro to single-family homes has prompted county officials to consider alternatives.
“Our zoning currently encourages larger housing units which are typically over budget for many middle-class families,” said Kellie Brown, supervisor of the Arlington Comprehensive Planning Section. “The existing zoning does not allow for more missing mid-level housing, so there are limited opportunities today to increase our housing supply under many local ordinances. There is an interest in increasing the choice and supply of housing, so people start to think creatively about what might need to change.
With 75 percent of residential land in Arlington zoned exclusively for single-family and single-family homes, the zoning itself is what needs to change, according to Emily Hamilton, principal researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University: “If we let’s look at what the community is doing right now, they allow multi-family dwellings on a very small part of their land and allow single-family dwellings on a much larger part of the land. This means that developers want to use all zoned multi-family lots to move into tall high rise buildings to meet the demand for apartments that cannot be met in other parts of the city.
That much of Norfolk’s population growth over the past decade has been concentrated in the city center is no coincidence. In a city that prohibits all multi-family housing on 87% of its residential land, such an outcome is virtually inevitable.
“Zoning is a problem; it’s a blunt instrument in many ways, ”said George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director. “You don’t have to look far into traditional Norfolk neighborhoods like Ghent to see the benefits of mixed-use and multi-family buildings. Sadly, in the post-war environment, what was built were apartment complexes and single-family homes, single-family homes, and virtually nothing else in between. We have balkanized our communities by type of housing and lost much of the built fabric that created the middle class.
Quadruple and 6-plex everywhere! Whole blocks of them. Sometimes even mixed with loose oneplex. It is anarchy, my friends, anarchy! How could previous generations have allowed this to happen? Aren’t plexes overwhelming schools? Streets blocked by traffic ?? pic.twitter.com/eaDIGliJau
– Jenny Schuetz (@jenny_schuetz) June 25, 2021
To rebuild the vibrant urban fabric of the town of the past, planners and Norfolk City Council worked in tandem to gradually accommodate more missing mid-level housing through a series of neighborhood ‘refreshments’, as agreed upon this week. last for Broad Creek – an area next to Norfolk State University and the Tidal tram.
If refreshments remain popular, the decision to allow more missing mid-size housing could spread city-wide according to Homewood, the planning director for Norfolk: where we have exclusive single-family and detached zoning.
Is it sufficient?
With two-thirds Millennials and 55 percent of the Silent Generation wishing to move to more pedestrianized neighborhoods, the demand for more missing intermediate developments is there. According to the National Association of Realtors, however, only a tenth of all housing units are currently in pedestrian communities. Whether model books and zoning ordinance updates can help the market meet the needs will depend on the details, Hamilton says.
“It’s really important to have a flexible regulatory framework rather than zoning for a very specific type of missing mid-size building, because it’s history that made these neighborhoods possible,” Hamilton said. “Before zoning, what households wanted and what they were willing to pay was all that determined what was built. Much of the change needed in Norfolk is minimum lot size reform, as most of their wards have pretty high lot size requirements.
Minimum lot size, mandatory setbacks, and off-street parking requirements are just a few of the restrictive regulations that have tipped the scales toward single-family and detached homes over the past eight decades. Undoing the layers of laws that hold back the missing intermediate dwellings can be a difficult task. “If they made all the regulatory changes to make the Norfolk Six Pack achievable it would be a big win, but it’s certainly not as simple as allowing six units per batch,” Hamilton said.
To expedite the issuance of permits for the new construction of the missing middle, Price and his team are working on pre-approved site plans to accompany each of the plans included in Norfolk’s new model book. “The site plan pre-approval process still takes six months to a year in Norfolk, even though we’re faster than our neighbors,” Homewood said. “It’s long and laborious, so we’re trying to figure out if we can give people not only the building concepts and floor plans, but also the ability to go from concept to construction much faster. “
Getting everything done and approved by city council by the end of the year will be a “big push” according to Price, “but it will have a big impact.”
As planners and advocates push for more missing mid-level housing in Commonwealth communities, Parolek advises them to remind local leaders and residents why reforms are needed.
“This is about meeting a need because developers are struggling to produce single-family homes at affordable prices,” he said. “COVID was just the fuel on the fire with already rising housing prices, which means cities need to think creatively about how to provide more housing for residents. Missing intermediate housing can provide more accessible housing units at more affordable prices. “