What is Middle Housing and Why Does It Matter?
Middle housing offers Oregonians the opportunity to expand homeownership access, allows homeowners to construct additional living spaces on their property to rent or subdivide and sell, and creates more sustainable and equitable “walkable urban” neighborhoods.
Middle housing occupies a position between low-density, detached single-family housing and high-density apartment complexes. Examples include townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, townhouses, and cottage clusters. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), while not technically a form of middle housing, are often indistinguishable from duplexes in that they result in two residences on a single lot.
We sometimes refer to middle housing as the “missing middle” due to the simple fact that it barely exists in our communities despite its myriad benefits. To help us understand why, let’s look at the history of middle housing in the United States and how single-family zoning and suburban sprawl came to dominate, resulting in automobile-dependent and deeply segregated communities.
Townhouses along Olive Street in Eugene, Oregon, built in 1929 before middle housing options were banned by zoning laws. This housing was often built without off-street parking because collectively, it provides enough people density to support “walkable urban” neighborhoods including human-scaled business districts such as those along nearby Willamette Street.
Zoning laws widely adopted across American cities in the mid-1900s banned middle housing and segregated neighborhoods intentionally into low and high-density residential zones. The intention of socio-economic segregation was often explicit. The domination of low-density zones and isolation of commercial zones led to a dependence on private automobiles and parking lots at all destinations.
the history of middle housing versus single family housing in the United States
Prior to the 1920s, middle housing was commonplace in the United States. Medium-density neighborhoods and mixed-used zoning facilitated neighborhood businesses within walking and biking distance.
The onset of new zoning codes began to change all of that. These codes were introduced for reasons of socio-economic segregation and sometimes explicit racism. Racist deed restrictions (below) and lending practices were ubiquitous for many decades.
Since the 1950s, the stereotypical “American Dream” has been centered on suburban (low-density) single-family homeownership, especially in a neighborhood devoid of people with lower incomes or people of color. “White flight” from dense urban centers typified the 20th century. This human development pattern has no historical precedent—it was made possible only by the private automobile.
Consequently, present-day neighborhoods are highly segregated by housing type and demographic—typically characterized by higher density zones of rental apartments occupied by a higher proportion of lower income tenants and people of color, and lower density suburban areas of detached houses occupied by a higher proportion of white middle- and upper-income homeowners. In addition, having a car and a place to park it at all destinations has become a practical necessity largely taken for granted in America.
These patterns are now so entrenched in our experience of what America is that it can be hard to imagine it any other way, or to see the harms caused by automobile dependence and by the intentional segregation of owner/renter demographics and housing type.
Exclusionary housing policies intentionally designed for socio-economic segregation have made it difficult for people of color to build generational wealth through homeownership. There is a much larger wealth gap today between black and white households than there was in the 1960s (see below).
Racist deed restriction found on hundreds of properties subdivided through the “Marylhurst Addition” in Springfield, Oregon in 1949. Such restrictions—though no longer legally enforceable today—are among the more explicit forms of racism historically intertwined with American suburban housing policies.
Racist housing policies, including exclusionary zoning and mortgage lender “redlining,” have suppressed homeownership and the subsequent financial growth by people of color for many generations. The effect has compounded over time to exacerbate racial wealth gaps. Source: Better Housing Together, Eugene, Oregon.
how oregon’s house bill 2001 opens new possibilities for middle housing
Oregon’s “Housing Choices” Bill (House Bill 2001) went into effect in 2022, re-legalizing the development of middle housing in neighborhoods where it had been prohibited for nearly a century. Middle housing such as triplexes and townhomes can again be built on lots formerly zoned exclusively for single-family housing.
In 2023, the “Climate Friendly Equitable Communities” Act followed, eliminating off-street parking requirements for new housing near frequent transit lines. Historically, strict parking requirements presented a significant obstacle to the development of new middle housing in Oregon, making the act an important step forward.
Essentially, these new regulations represent transformative shifts from housing exclusion toward inclusion and from automobile-dependency toward transportation-choice. By departing from the suburban status quo, they offer us important opportunities to combat Oregon’s housing crisis and global climate crisis.
Middle housing offers Oregonians the opportunity to expand homeownership access and create more sustainable and equitable “walkable urban” neighborhoods. Moreover, Oregon’s elimination of single-family zoning offers homeowners the opportunity to construct additional living spaces on their property then rent them out or subdivide and sell.
We examine these benefits in much more detail in the next in our series of articles on middle housing: “What are the Benefits of Middle Housing?”