Commentary: Why Austin needs ‘missing middle’ housing for affordability

For those of us who care about housing affordability, it is a rare and welcome occasion when a large American city updates its zoning practices.

A handful of other cities, such as Denver and Miami, have recently taken the plunge — and in the process expanded the possibilities for reasonably priced housing to be built. Now, with the release of the CodeNEXT draft, it could be Austin’s turn to follow suit.

A great deal is riding on how much and how well housing advocates press officials to improve the draft, which as of now largely reflects the status quo. The priorities need to be drastically expanding where “missing middle” housing can be built — and backing it up with appropriately scaled affordability incentive policies.

VIEWPOINTS: First rollout of CodeNEXT still leaves many questions unanswered.

What is “missing middle” housing and why does it matter? Dan Parolek, a principal of Opticos, the lead CodeNEXT consultant, coined the term when he noticed that many U.S. cities like Austin tend to build either large-lot, single-family houses or large apartment buildings — but very little in between. Missing middle housing includes townhouses, small apartment buildings, and even detached single-family houses on small lots.

The missing middle is vitally important to housing affordability because it is the cheapest way to develop the built-up sections of Austin. It occupies the sweet spot — dense enough to spread out land costs, but low-scale enough to use inexpensive, wood-framed construction and avoid elevators, parking garages and other expensive features of large apartment buildings.

Missing middle developments can also fit onto just one or a few adjacent residential parcels and avoid the expensive and time-consuming land assembly required by larger developments. Missing middle housing is also family- and neighborhood-friendly; it’s close to the ground and well-suited for quiet streets. The trouble is that currently, with few exceptions, zoning prohibits missing middle housing almost everywhere in Austin’s urban core.

Our nonprofit organization has been spreading the gospel of missing middle housing in Austin. Through our Alley Flat Initiative, we have been providing design and project management services to homeowners who want to add a second home to their properties that they can rent to a low-income resident. We also advocate for dismantling barriers, such as those found in zoning regulations and financing restrictions.

We envision the city supporting the construction of more affordable missing middle housing with policies and dollars, such as some of those from the mayor’s proposed Austin Affordable Fund. After all, the same zoning reforms that could make market-rate, missing middle developments quicker, easier and cheaper to build — and therefore lower-priced for their ultimate residents — promise to stretch scarce affordable housing public funds further.

RELATED: 5 things to know about corrections to Austin’s CodeNext maps.

None of our success to date has been possible without allies, such as the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp. and the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development.

We urge everyone concerned about housing affordability in Austin to join us in pushing for policies that will allow a broader range of people to live in every part of the city. These policies will take many forms — but at this immediate moment, our foremost task is to ensure that CodeNEXT realizes its potential to transform Austin.

A year from now, we will know we have succeeded if Austin’s new zoning code allows for missing middle housing to be built in more parts of the city and if development incentives expand opportunities for deep affordability in more neighborhoods. Then, the real work of making Austin more inclusive for people at all income levels can begin.

Joslin is executive director of the Austin Community Design and Development Center. Wegmann is a member of the ACDDC board and on the Community and Regional Planning faculty at the University of Texas.

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