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The Missing Rung in the Housing Ladder

Think about your journey with your living situation over the course of your life. You likely started living with your parents, later moved to a dorm room or shared apartment, and as you got older and grew into a career, you may have purchased a starter home–something small and affordable.

Later, when you got married, started a family, or had a higher paycheck, perhaps you “traded up,” and purchased a family home with more space, nicer amenities, and a great neighborhood. And perhaps your pinnacle of homeownership is the idea of purchasing a “dream home,” something large or luxurious; an asset that illustrates that you have climbed the housing ladder.

The housing ladder is a concept that is ingrained in our understanding of homeownership. It describes the progression of homeownership stages that we typically go through over time, and tracks our journey of moving up the rungs from lower-cost or entry-level housing options to more expensive and desirable properties.

There is, however, a critical missing rung in this housing ladder: middle housing.

Middle housing refers to a range of housing options that fall between single-family homes and large apartment complexes. It includes structures like townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, cottage courts, and small apartment buildings. This type of housing balances density and livability, and offers a middle ground in housing options.

Over time, middle housing, which historically made up a large portion of our cities, has been phased out, redeveloped, and in some cases, completely eliminated as an urban living option.

Several historical factors led to the decline in middle housing:

  • Zoning Laws and Single-Family Dominance: In the early 20th century, zoning laws were introduced to regulate land use and development. Single-family zoning became prevalent, prioritizing detached homes and limiting the construction of middle housing.

  • Suburban Living and the Rise of Car Culture: The mid-20th century witnessed a shift towards suburbanization, driven by factors such as affordable land, increased car ownership, and a desire for larger homes. Suburban development often favored low-density single-family housing.

  • Urban Renewal and Redevelopment: During the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal initiatives were implemented to revitalize deteriorating neighborhoods. However, these efforts frequently involved demolishing existing middle housing to make way for high-rise projects or commercial developments.

  • Racial and Economic Segregation: Housing policies tainted by racial discrimination, such as redlining and restrictive covenants, disproportionately affected communities of color. These practices limited access to middle housing options.

Now, this lack of middle housing has significant implications for the health and vitality of our cities, and the communities that live within them.

  • Middle housing plays a critical role in addressing the affordability gap between single-family homes and apartments. By providing more options for homebuyers and renters, middle housing promotes housing diversity and expands affordability.

  • Middle housing fosters vibrant and inclusive communities. Its moderate density encourages walkability, community interaction, and a mix of household types, enabling people of different backgrounds and life stages to reside in the same neighborhood.

  • Emphasizing middle housing supports sustainable urban development by reducing sprawl, optimizing land use, and facilitating access to public transportation. It enables more efficient use of resources and promotes environmentally friendly practices.

Population growth and demand for housing are both expected to continue, creating a dire need for more middle housing rungs on the housing ladder. By reevaluating zoning regulations, promoting mixed-use development, and supporting the construction of middle housing, we can restore this missing rung and create more equitable, diverse, and sustainable communities for all. It's time to prioritize middle housing and ensure that the housing ladder is complete.


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