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Maren Murphy

What is the “missing middle” in housing options?

Maren Murphy, AICP – Assistant Planner, 509.625.6737


Tuesday, December 22, 2020 at 12:46 p.m.

What is the “missing middle” in housing options?

A buzzword has surfaced to describe the challenges many cities are experiencing and Spokane is one of them. What does it mean when you hear the term “missing middle” in reference to housing? The term was coined by Daniel Parolek in 2010. The Opticos Design founder defines the term as “house-scale buildings with multiple units in walkable neighborhoods.” To define these units visually think of building types such as duplexes, triplexes, courtyard buildings and cottage courts.

What does this mean for current housing options in Spokane? Single-family detached homes make up 69 percent of housing in the City of Spokane. Duplexes, triplexes and other house-scale buildings with less than five units make up 9 percent of housing inventory. Multi-family housing includes apartments and condominiums and accounts for 21 percent of housing in the City. The Draft Housing Needs Assessment Fact Packet provides data on housing trends and the types of housing built since before the 1940s.

The nine percent of single family attached housing units represents the “missing middle,” and includes housing types such as duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts, and multiplexes. Explained by Opticos Design founder Parolek, they are called “Missing” because they have typically been illegal to build since the mid-1940s in many cities around the country; and “Middle” because they sit in the middle of a spectrum between detached single-family homes and mid-rise to high-rise apartment buildings, in terms of form and scale, as well as number of units and often, affordability.

But none of the types of Missing Middle Housing is new. In the City of Spokane, duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, cottage housing, and other types of house-scale buildings were more commonly built pre-1940s, and still exist in neighborhoods all over the city today. In many cases, these types are beloved buildings that are part of our cultural heritage and add to Spokane’s historic charm. However, development of attached single-family housing has slowed down since the 1980s. Parolek explains that the rise of local zoning regulations and demand for detached single-family housing after WWII accelerated the trend away from Missing Middle Housing.

How does this impact current housing needs in the City of Spokane?

The obvious impact is the current housing availability crisis. Additionally, one could consider it a housing identity crisis. It’s the age-old question of “what comes first, the chicken or the egg?” If there aren’t many examples of single-family attached housing opportunities, it’s no surprise that they aren’t sought after in planning or zoning discussions.

Duplexes, triplexes and other examples of Missing Middle Housing units often appeal financially to homes with median household incomes. These housing types are typically smaller than single-family detached houses or suburban houses, and they also can cost less.  The Missing Middle Housing concept looks at these house-scale buildings as an opportunity to provide solutions along a spectrum of affordability. It also helps address a lack of these housing types that could deliver modestly priced homes in existing residential neighborhoods, and support walkability, locally-serving retail, and public transportation options.

If you would like to learn more about housing in the City of Spokane visit the Housing Action Plan page.

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