Logo showing a stylized city skyline with text that reads: Asheville For All

For housing abundance and diverse, livable communities in Asheville

Let’s Make “Missing Middle” Count for Asheville

We will send the letter below to Asheville City Council on Friday, February 9th.

Please sign by Thursday, February 8th.

Asheville is at a historic turning point.

After commissioning a study on the city’s housing shortage, there is now no question that Asheville’s land use policies and multi-family permitting processes are a significant contributor to a severe lack of affordability and housing options.

The city is now committed to changing such policies to allow for more “missing middle” housing in its residential neighborhoods. (Not sure what “missing middle” is? Check out our explainer page.)

But the devil will be in the details. For real change that’s going to count in the battle against housing scarcity, the city will need to swing for the fences.

So Asheville For All is calling for “missing middle” reform that is broad, ambitious, and swift. We believe it’s the only way to ease costs for renters and first-time homebuyers, bring back socio-economic diversity to our core neighborhoods and make them more walkable and vibrant, and reduce displacement pressures and opportunities for speculation.

Please read and sign the letter below if you agree.

Open Letter to Asheville City Council

Dear Asheville City Councilors:

Thank you for your continuing foresight and leadership in initiating and ushering through to completion Asheville’s Missing Middle Housing Study.

We are excited about the potential for middle housing in Asheville.

The now-completed study makes absolutely clear that Asheville is suffering a deep housing shortage; that existing zoning and permitting policies discourage the development of a variety of housing types in our most high-demand, high-opportunity neighborhoods; and that the displacement and burdensome housing costs that residents are experiencing every day can be mitigated in part by reforms that promote a greater variety of housing types in our core residential neighborhoods.1

We regret that Asheville residents lacked an opportunity to comment when the study was presented to the council in the first week of January, and so we ask that you consider the following comments as you continue to work with city staff and communicate with the public.

We believe the reforms that the city may initiate in light of the study will be most effective if they meet three criteria: that they are broad, ambitious, and swift.

Missing middle reforms should be broad

The evidence is clear that while small, “hyper-local” attempts at upzoning can increase housing supply somewhat in housing markets that suffer scarcity, the most dramatic and beneficial results come from pro-housing land-use reforms that are geographically broad.

Most importantly, the city must include the residential neighborhoods that have the highest land values, greatest demand, and closest proximity to jobs, schools, public transit, and other amenities.

A Missing Middle reform that is broad will not only offer the fastest rates of new residential construction, it will also mitigate possibilities for speculation. When cities increase their capacity for new homes to be developed over time such that potential capacity nears or meets demand, the power of incumbent landowners diminishes. More developable land means less cutthroat competition among builders, and as housing policy researcher Shane Philips has shown, that means that landowners are less able to “capture” the value of their land. In short, tenants and first-time homebuyers have more to gain, and landlords’ gains are reduced, when cities allow broad pro-housing reforms. 2

Breadth means that every Asheville neighborhood can feel like they are playing a role in solving our housing shortage—and they can see that every other neighborhood is pitching in too.

Finally, a broad approach to missing middle reforms means abolishing single-family-only zoning. The idea that a lot should only house one family, regardless of building form, setbacks, lot size, and open space, is arbitrary and rooted in a classist and racist history. We don’t expect that all of the hills and hollers of Asheville’s peripheries should be host to twelve-plexes. Nor do we believe that residential neighborhoods with especially vulnerable populations should necessarily see dramatic changes to their underlying zoning. But we do believe that any lot that currently hosts one family can comfortably host two. In cities across the country, abolishing single-family-only zoning has not only increased the potential for more housing supply, it has been understood as a symbolic rejection of segregation, and Asheville should join in such a rejection.3

Missing middle reforms should be ambitious

By this we mean simply that the solutions proposed for reforming land use and permitting should meet the scale of the current housing crisis.

To offer one potential example of an ambitious approach: no particular land use reform is mentioned in the Missing Middle Housing Study as frequently as parking reform. An ambitious policy might be to entirely do away with mandatory parking minimums altogether. (There is now considerable precedent for doing so.)4

Another example of an ambitious approach to incentivizing the construction of middle housing might be ensuring that a diverse palette of types and forms can be built on any given lot. For example, the city might determine that a fifty-foot wide lot in a close-in, high-opportunity neighborhood should be able to be developed into a three-story stacked triplex with family-size homes, or a sixplex of smaller residences, or include other housing forms such as a multifamily flag lot, and draft appropriate new specifications around height, lot coverage, etc.

We can’t presume to know which of the approaches suggested in the Missing Middle Housing Study city staff is considering for its land use reforms—whether it will employ overlays, updates to the city’s existing residential zoning districts, or a whole new map (143). Nor would we propose detailed prescriptions. We are simply suggesting a rubric: however the city goes about changing its land use rules, it should be ambitious in doing so.

Missing middle reforms should be swift

By this, we certainly don’t mean that city staff should be pressed to work overtime in formulating and drafting land use and/or permitting reforms.

Rather, we mean that the greatest effort should be taken to avoid delays that are political in nature. We hope that votes before council will be scheduled and undertaken without diversion, with the understanding that land use reforms, by their nature, take some time to bear results. Similarly, we hope that desired reforms will be applied without any “trial” or “pilot” periods.

As a certain saying goes: the best time to fix restrictive zoning is five years ago; the next best time is now.

It will take time for lots to become available for development, to be bought and sold; for plans to be drawn up and permits to be approved; and it will take time for homes to be built. Any extra time lost due to political apprehension or timidity, or in appeasing the opponents of land use reform who may call for delays, will be time when working people and their families could have seen more housing options available to them.

* * *

Thank you all, again, for your roles in this process thus far. We have no doubt that with your continued support, Asheville missing middle reforms can help to make our city more affordable for a greater diversity of residents.5

  1. Although we have no doubt that in the months ahead there will be claims to the contrary, missing middle housing is a solution to the problem of renters being displaced by high housing costs, not a potential cause. Please note that the city’s very own commissioned Displacement Risk Assessment lists missing middle housing as an “anti-displacement strategy” with “high anti-displacement efficacy” (97, 134). ↩︎

  2. Philips, “Building Up the ‘Zoning Buffer’: Using Broad Upzones to Increase Housing Capacity Without Increasing Land Values,” 2022. Also see Herriges, “What Would Mass Upzoning *Actually* Do to Property Values?,” 2022. ↩︎

  3. See for example, Minneapolis, MN and Charlotte, NC. ↩︎

  4. The Parking Reform Network keeps exhaustive track of every city that has passed parking reform. ↩︎

  5. Whenever terms such as “affordable” and “attainable” are deployed in discussions around housing costs, confusion follows. And so we want to note here that although the authors of Asheville’s Missing Middle Study and its accompanying presentations before various city commissions and committees have taken great pains to deny that resulting land use and permitting reforms will make housing less costly for lower-income residents, the data in other cities actually show otherwise.

    Adding greater density in areas with high demand and high opportunity, even though new construction by its nature is less affordable for lower income households (especially in such neighborhoods due to land costs), eases pressure on rents and home costs across the board by preventing high wealth buyers, renters, investors, and speculators from monopolizing the market. Specifically, new research shows that “chains of moving” or “migration chains” free up existing homes at lower prices for working people and their families surprisingly fast. See: Been, Ellen, and O’Regan, “Supply Skepticism Revisited,” 2023 (28); Herriges, “The Best Evidence Yet for the ‘Housing Musical Chairs’ Theory,” 2024.

    Needless to say, Missing Middle reforms do not contradict or obviate continued and/or expanded investment in subsidized housing. (Nor do they obviate the need for continuing pro-housing land use reforms in and around downtown or such parts of Asheville that might be designated as urban centers, town centers, and/or commercial corridors.) ↩︎

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