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For housing abundance and diverse, livable communities in Asheville

What Will Be the Boundaries of the Missing Middle in Asheville?

by Andrew P.
August 9, 2023

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

I’m going to share some half-formed thoughts—questions, really—about the directions that “missing middle” zoning reforms might take here in Asheville. If you’re not familiar with what “missing middle” means, or how the city is currently undertaking steps that will likely produce “missing middle” changes to our zoning codes next year, please check out Asheville For All’s missing middle info page.

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I saw this image shared on Twitter last month:

The building looks a lot like other prewar middle-type residential buildings. But the specifics are worth digging into.

The caption on the post noted that this is a “family friendly” four-plex. The units span the entire length and width of their respective floors. It’s hard to say, but they might be 1,000 square feet or more, and could presumably hold three bedrooms. Unlike many of the Sears catalog apartment buildings that one typically finds pictured online, the homes in this building have windows on three or four sides.1

(I say this in nearly every of one of my posts, but as a reminder: these homes could be apartments that one rents, but they could also be apartments that are owner-occupied, in which case we call them condominiums. Condos aren’t limited to high-rises and large complexes, just as rental apartments aren’t.)

Remember, the central idea behind adding denser homes like this fourplex to places with high land values is this: by placing four families on the same lot, those four families are effectively teaming up and pooling their resources with respect to land costs, and this allows them to “compete with” or “outbid” the wealthy. As a bonus, the neighborhood gets a bigger tax base, and more people in one place means that the neighborhood becomes attractive to businesses within walking distance, and more suitable for amenities and public transit.

Also remember: the idea behind missing middle reforms in particular, as opposed to other kinds of multifamily upzonings, is to try to find a balance between adding density to existing neighborhoods, and appeasing the current residents of those neighborhoods. We get more benefits out of building apartments in core residential areas—ones that already close to walkable commercial districts, downtown, workplaces, transit routes, and other amenities—than in some other locations. It simply makes more sense to build more homes in North Asheville than it does off of, say, Smokey Park Highway. But the resistance to neighborhood change in North Asheville is going to be far more fierce than that on the undeveloped periphery, or on a commercial corridor. (Say, Brevard Road south of I-40, for example.) So, implicit in the idea of adding more missing middle homes to Asheville is the idea that we are not talking about those commercial corridors or peripheries where you are already likely to see big, acre-plus, multifamily developments being built.

In short, there’s some tension here. Asheville’s housing crisis is severe. We need solutions that meet the scale of the problem. On the other hand, the solution that’s on the table that will potentially have significant effects—at least in the long-term—is defined as a kind of “Goldilocks” approach; missing middle’s appeal is in part due to its moderacy.

When I see the picture that I shared above, I like to think that this kind of building could fit comfortably in parts of Five Points in North Asheville. Or even on Vermont Ave. in West Asheville. And I also think that such buildings could go a long way to helping create more housing options, in more desirable parts of town, while adding supply in one of the ways that it’s needed—with family sized homes that can be stacked or placed next to each other so they don’t take up a lot of land. (We know that smaller-sized homes are needed too.)

But I know that others probably feel otherwise. For its part, Opticos Design, the folks that came up with the phrase “missing middle” and the ones that are now conducting Asheville’s missing middle study and will be eventually making recommendations to the city’s planning department when their study is complete, have emphasized the lower ends of the missing middle spectrum in its presentations to the Asheville public so far. Lots of stuff on duplexes and triplexes, not so much on eight-plexes and twelve-plexes. In one presentation, I think they suggested that they would set a height limit of “two-and-a-half” stories on its recommendations. That would mean that my humble fourplex would still be illegal to build in most or all of Asheville’s core, walkable residential neighborhoods.

So where should the upper boundaries for Asheville’s missing middle lie? I don’t know the answer right away. But I do think that as the city’s process continues, and particularly as the process shifts in the fall from hearing from Opticos about their findings to the city’s staff engaging in actual revisions to the city’s development code, that we’ll have to pivot from the questions we’re hearing now:

to ones that are more like:

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Along with the question of where we’ll set the typological boundaries of our missing middle stock—that is, as it pertains to the spectrum of housing types and densities—we’ve also got the question of geographical boundaries.

There are certain assumptions baked in to the idea of missing middle, as I’ve noted above. It is a reform to neighborhoods that are currently zoned for low density and/or single-family-housing only. It is not meant to simply be applied to undeveloped areas and urban peripheries, nor to downtowns or commercial corridors. And—I think this is important—it must be done at some kind of scale in order to see the effects on housing attainability, affordability, and options that we need in Asheville.

Surely, we know that the single-family-only residential neighborhoods best suited for missing middle upzoning in Asheville are not the ones with wild topographies and tendril-like road networks. It’s the close-in, more grid-like neighborhoods that have the best potential for walkability. (Though it should be said that in Asheville, “grid-like” can only be a relative term!)

Similarly, we know that we will get the most bang for our buck if we don’t shy away from rezoning high-income, high-amenity neighborhoods. With high land values, builders want to build here already. That’s because higher density construction is a better bet in these spots, financially speaking.2

And again, there’s the need for scale. The more areas that are rezoned, the more potential there is for more infill construction, and the more likely we are to see our housing stock increase with the types of homes that we need to bring down median rents and mortgages. Rezoning, by its nature, is a crucial but slooow policy solution to a housing shortage. Setting the rules too strictly now on what can be done in the next five or ten years will only mean that we’ll be facing much worse sprawl and affordability problems ten and twenty years down the line.

Furthermore, perhaps the best way to secure buy-in for a policy like missing middle zoning reforms is to ensure that every neighborhood will pitch in, especially the affluent neighborhoods that are close to downtown, transit, jobs, and amenities. Ashevilleans everywhere want to see home costs come down. But they don’t want to feel like they will bear the potential trade-offs alone.3 If folks in East Asheville feel like those in North Asheville are undertaking the same neighborhood changes as them, I think we might see more support across demographics that are likely to be more “NIMBY” when it comes to supporting or opposing particular one-off housing developments or single-neighborhood upzonings.

But if the city decides, under pressure from certain residents, that certain high-potential neighborhoods are off limits to change, not only might city-wide support break down, but we’d end up with a less efficacious development map as far as combatting the housing shortage goes. That is, if enough people tell City Council that “we love the idea of missing middle, we just don’t think North Asheville is right for it,” we’ll end up with an incomplete and neutered solution.

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A concluding note: I intentionally wanted to phrase this post as more of a question than a comment. I don’t know if we should include three-and-a-half-story four-plexes in the types of buildings we want to see built in our walkable residential neighborhoods. I don’t know if we should demand the upzoning of Vermont Ave. And I don’t know where these two questions intersect— maybe Five Points gets the potential for four story buildings, and Vermont Ave. just gets duplexes? And I hope none of this is read as reflecting the opinions of Asheville For All’s organizers or coalition partners.

Opticos Design will let us know what they think about these questions when they deliver their study this fall. And we should listen to what they say—they’re the experts. (As an aside, I had some conversations with some of them last week, and they all seem like great people.)

And the city’s planners will let us know what they think too. And they’re experts as well.

But I do think that we should understand these questions as not just technical, but political. And so we shouldn’t avoid thinking about them ourselves. And the way that we answer them are likely to have a big impact, in the long run at least, on the trajectory of our city’s housing crisis.

  1. For various reasons, it can be especially difficult to find homes with more than one or two bedrooms in multifamily buildings.

    Incidentally, I have vague memories of my grandparents living in a building almost exactly like this in Jersey City. They lived on one floor and rented out the others.

    And one more note on this building. I think this is an example of a kind of old middle-type building that is often presented to density skeptics because its aesthetic has a certain old-school charm. For the record, I really like the old-school brick look too. But I’d be just as happy if this building were clad in postmodern paneling! I think it’s OK for homes that are built today to look different from older homes, and I think that having a diversity of housing types AND a diversity of architectural styles in any given neighborhood only makes things more interesting. 

  2. It’s my understanding that the missing middle study currently underway in Asheville includes a sub-component that will address specific ways that the city can undertake rezoning without inadvertently displacing low-income residents. I think we’re all eager to see this component.

    There’s good research to suggest that the displacement that we are experiencing now—and this displacement will only get worse if Asheville doesn’t reform its development code—is worse than anything possible under missing middle reforms. (In other words, there’s some status quo bias involved when we talk about the risk of displacement due to rezoning, as if people aren’t being forced to leave the city—or forced into housing insecurity and homelessness—every day already.) And it’s also worth saying that the most likely areas to be redeveloped after a rezoning are the more affluent areas anyways. There is a common misconception that new construction leads to more affluent residents, but in fact new construction chases the areas with high land values. Eric Levitz explains this well here. Nonetheless, areas where residents experience “social vulnerability” may be less likely to benefit from upzoning, as a recent study from Up For Growth puts it.

    All this is to reaffirm that the most affluent, close-in neighborhoods should be targeted for missing middle rezoning. 

  3. I wince a little bit, even mentioning the idea of “trade-offs” here. Some impacts of density are subjective, and the biggest fears of homeowners often go unrealized. I might try to say more about this in the future. For now, I want to note that opponents of zoning reform—in Asheville and around the country—will inevitably use bad faith arguments, and claims rooted in classism, while ignoring actual evidence. We should pay no attention to claims that missing middle housing will bring crime, or lower property values, for example. Other concerns, or trade-offs, are more important to address. 

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

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