Kendrick Place, Home to Barbara Bouton since 1990, Knoxville, September 2022
Missing Middle Housing is a term coined in 2010 by architect Daniel Parolek. In general terms, the word references types of housing which were common in pre-1940 America, but are no longer common. Duplexes, triplexes, rowhomes, and courtyard apartments have given way to large apartment complexes on one end and single-family houses on the other. The middle — housing for two or more families — seems to have gone missing.
Post-1940 America emphasized single-home construction, which was now viable because cities could sprawl in all directions, with the new home owners able to take their private car to their jobs. The country subsidized and supported the development of private automobiles and infrastructure and cities subsidized, and supported through zoning regulations, single-family homes. The results led to a mixed bag in many ways, but less density by design. While Americans loved their suburban homes, we also stretched our infrastructure capacity, lost massive amounts of farmland and forest, and expedited climate change exponentially.
Daniel Parolek and others who use the term see it as a source of concern. In addition to the unintended negative consequences listed above, the codes and sprawl have contributed in a major way to our current housing shortage. Fewer people live on ever large spaces. A single family home in America quite often sits on a third to a full acre. That same acre can support a two-to-three story apartment building with about twenty units. Twenty homes of one. It drives up the cost of housing because the homes are larger and the supply is limited.
And yet, that is how most of our zoning works — one home for a parcel and no more. This flies in the face of current demographics. Average household size in the U.S. peaked in the 1990s at 4.93 and has fallen over the decades to 2.56. In Knoxville, 40% of households are comprised of single individuals, while 78% of households do not have children. Yet, the homes get bigger and the density declines.
Is it a problem in Knoxville? In 2022, the City of Knoxville, East Tennessee Realtors, and Knoxville-Knox County Planning had Opticos Design, experts in the field, do an analysis of our zoning, opportunities, and barriers for Missing Middle Housing. You can read their full report here. They looked for opportunities in places that might support this missing middle at a neighborhood scale and focused on areas that are walkable or bikeable, that are served by nearby businesses and transit and are close to areas with existing middle and multi-family housing.
The resulting report produced a focus on possible solutions to increase density through changes in zoning, allowing the missing middle to return in neighborhoods where it is appropriate. They recommended starting with near-downtown areas which fit the criteria, including Parkridge, Fourth and Gill, Old North Knoxville, Oakwood-Lincoln Park, neighborhoods off Sutherland. South Knoxville zoning already allows this type of housing and some has been built there.
You can see the city’s recommendations for zoning changes here with the full detailed recommendations here. In short, the changes would allow for middle housing to be included in existing RN-2, RN-3, and RN-4 zones. Side-by-side or stacked duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and small townhomes (3 to 4 units) would be allowed in all zones. Large townhomes (5 to 8 residences) and multiplex (small, 5 – 10 units) would be allowed in RN-3 and RN-4 only.
The city hosted two open house events to distribute information, take comments, and answer questions and attracted almost 200 residents. The photos here are from the second event, held earlier this week. At the event, I spoke to Gordon Coker, a Fourth and Gill resident who expressed concern that existing properties could be sub-divided into multiple units, denigrating the architecture and character of the neighborhood and producing absentee landlords. He suggested that limiting the new housing types to currently undeveloped lots or the edges of the neighborhoods along corridors would make the most sense.
If you have an opinion on these changes, there is still time to contact city officials and city council members. This afternoon, City Council takes a look at the proposal, the input, and holds a workshop for discussion. The proposal is on the agenda for the Planning Commission next week, October 5. If approved there, it arrives for a vote before City Council in November. If approved, it takes effect January 1.