I was first introduced to the concept of developing “missing middle” housing back in 2016 when I attended a series of small developer training workshops in Columbus and Savannah, Georgia, led by a group called the Incremental Development Alliance (IDA) and hosted by community and civic organizations in each city.
As a stay-at-home mother, I took advantage of the break in my career to attend classes, conferences, and attain certifications that not only kept me engaged with the professional community, but enhanced my expertise, providing me with new skill sets to excel when I returned back to work full-time. At the time, I had successfully completed numerous commercial and residential renovation projects in Savannah and was contemplating how I could begin to scale my business model to cut my teeth on new construction and real estate development.
IDA small scale real estate development workshops are all about project formation. They take a big picture view of neighborhood-based development to help attendees analyze what makes a good project, how a building makes money and how small developers interact with the broader ecosystem of professionals in the built environment. By the end of the workshop, aspiring developers feel more prepared to take the first steps on their own project.
My biggest takeaway from attending the workshops was that it is possible to build profitable small-scale multi-unit infill properties that improve neighborhoods and allow communities to adapt to changing housing needs while still honoring the best of its built heritage. Specifically, the workshops promote the multi-unit property types that have been dubbed the “missing middle,” and there is a growing movement to increase the development of these property types. These missing middle property types received their moniker due to the fact that they fall on the real estate spectrum in terms of size and scale between single-family housing and large apartment complexes.
Opticos Design founder Daniel Parolek inspired the movement in 2010 when he coined the term “Missing Middle Housing” to describe the transformative concept that promotes the time-proven and beloved housing types that provide more housing and more housing choices in sustainable, walkable places.
The movement has gained so much momentum nationwide over the past decade that there is now an official Missing Middle Housing organization. Missing Middle Housing is a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units that are compatible in scale and form with detached single-family homes.
While Missing Middle Housing is primarily about the form and scale of the buildings, which are designed to provide more housing choices in low-rise walkable neighborhoods, they also tend to be more affordable than other new housing products currently being built. They also help to solve the mismatch between the available U.S. housing stock and shifting demographics and the growing demand for walkability. According to Debra Bassert with the National Association of Home Builders, “We need a greater mix of housing types to meet differing income and generational needs. This is where Missing Middle Housing can change the conversation.”
After attending those two IDA workshops, I was hooked on development, and there was no turning back. Those workshops changed the trajectory of my career to such an extent that I later went on to receive a master’s degree in real estate development from Clemson University.
In the subsequent years, I have been lucky enough to mentor under some of the most successful developers in the nation in many of the most beloved and charming towns throughout the southeast. Along the way, I began to notice that the most memorable and successful of these towns all had similar traits in common, including walkable neighborhoods within close proximity to transportation, services, work, quality schools, and amenities. But above all else, these communities all enjoyed a diversity of housing options, notably the very same Missing Middle Housing types championed by IDA.
In some instances, Missing Middle Housing types existed in these communities as a result of savvy local developers, but often times because these are the types of housing that were built prior to the end of World War II. According to the Missing Middle Housing organization, “while they are missing from our new building stock, these types of buildings from the 1920s and ‘30s are beloved by many who have lived in them. Ask around, and your aunt may have fond memories of living in a fourplex as a child, or you might remember visiting your grandmother as she grew old in a duplex with neighbors nearby to help her out. And today, young couples, teachers, single, professional women and baby boomers are among those looking for ways to live in a walkable neighborhood, but without the cost and maintenance burden of a detached single-family home.”
IDA began in 2015 as a collaboration between several successful small developers who found themselves overwhelmed by the number of people asking them for advice on building small-scale real estate projects that achieved the holy trifecta as financially feasible, attractive, and quality contributions to the places they loved most: their hometowns. At their core, they train small developers during one-day workshops or two-day boot camps; however, they will also work with local groups and foundations to create custom projects in targeted neighborhoods.
According to IDA, “we can have the greatest impact when we apply our alliance to intensive project work in a targeted area. This work requires active ground support from a civic group, government, business association, or economic development group, in addition to financial backing. These projects call for deep focus and important bridge building.”
They can also help municipalities “triage their rules and processes to create a near term pathway for the legalization of small-scale development” by conducting what they refer to as a “stress test.” The organization feels that “most cities are unaware of the stymieing effect of what may seem like innocuous rules or processes. Be it the fine print of stormwater management or the approval processes required for a parking variance, many well-intentioned regulations disproportionately hinder exactly the kind of development that cities hope for.”
The organization is clear, however, that “this is not an anti-regulation exercise – it’s about making the rules clearer and the process less arcane for local, small scale developers.”
I respect the Incremental Development Alliance immensely and have been fortunate to continue my association with many of the staff in a professional capacity over the course of my career, as well as through my involvement with the Congress for the New Urbanism. I would consider it a huge win for our community if they were to host a workshop or boot camp here.