Tucked into the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk, Virginia, is a city of neighborhoods that range from beachfront enclaves to suburban cul-de-sacs and turn-of-the-century historic districts. What they all have in common, though, is a missing middle—housing that is neither a single-family home nor a massive apartment building, but smaller multi-family units like duplexes and fourplexes.
The term “missing middle housing” was coined by Dan Parolek who wrote a book of the same name. Parolek’s work charts out how these slightly more dense, walkable, and desirable middle housing options can not only help address the country’s housing crisis by providing more affordable options, but how they can be brought back after the boom of car-centric, single-family development that flourished after World War II.
Drawing on Parolek’s work, Norfolk approved a Missing Middle Pattern Book in June that provides free architectural plans for one, two, and three-bedroom units that can easily be mixed into existing housing. Each of the floorplans consist of modular components that can be shifted around to create side-by-side duplex, triplex, multiplex, or townhouse units with configurations that can fit on different lot sizes. Depending on the size of the project, developers can expect to save around 15-20% on the design fees that constitute roughly 10% of the overall cost of a project’s construction, says Mel Price, a principal at the firm behind Norfolk’s new pattern book, Work Program Architects.
Price adds that there were two central reasons that the city wanted to create a pattern book focused on middle development: changing demographics and economics.
“We see it and hear it every day that folks just don’t make as much proportional [to their income] with student debt and everything else,” she says. “If we follow the general rule of thumb that no more than 30% of income should be spent on housing, it becomes very difficult for people.”
Second, the hope is that the city can increase housing options designed to not only boost walkability and affordability, but serve residents in all stages of life as well. “A significant portion of our population will soon be over 70. We need these folks to be able to live in walkable communities where they can have some quality of life without living in the suburbs and driving cars everywhere,” Price adds. “[Middle housing is] very equalizing home types that people can move through at various stages of their life,” from student life to retirement, she adds. Ultimately, “it ensures that people can stay and age in place.”
The city also hopes that the pattern book will help landlords who have the ability to scale up from renting a single-family home but aren’t able to make the leap to a large apartment complex find middle ground in the smaller plans that the book offers. “It’s ownership agnostic. You could make it a rental, a co-op, or outfit it as a condo,” Price says.
Now that the pattern book has been adopted, Chris Whitney, Norfolk’s chief planner, says that the city has moved into public outreach mode to figure out the rules and regulations that they’ll have to reassess in order to encourage developers to actually turn the patterns into reality.
“We’ve taken an incentive approach,” Whitney says. “We’ll allow maybe greater densities or waive certain limits on dimension standards within the zoning districts” that otherwise require minimum lot sizes or minimum off-street parking requirements that could get in the way.
While Norfolk is just getting started, Bryan, Texas, offers a cautionary tale. The city of 80,000, located northwest of Houston, adopted an award-winning pattern book as part of its Midtown Area Plan in May 2020. But the city hasn’t built a single development using the patterns.
“We’ve kind of been in sales mode since [passing it],” explains Randy Haynes, Bryan’s planning administrator. The point of Bryan’s pattern book was to not only rein in sprawl and concentrate development around existing infrastructure like roads and sewer lines, but to increase commercial development, too. “Everyone wants a sidewalk café and a bookshop and a skateboard shop, but it’s hard to create or retrofit that environment,” he says. “Those things don’t grow naturally, they have to be planned for.”
Bryan’s patterns offer, in part, a clear path forward for homeowners and developers. Homeowners may want to sell their property to downsize, developers might previously have demolished an existing home to make room for apartments, but now both groups have the option of adding accessory dwelling units instead. “This was, in my view, some real thinking outside the box. While we haven’t had any takers yet, we’re very hopeful,” Haynes says. “In my head, it’s kind of like a junior high dance—someone has got to go first, but once someone starts dancing, everyone has a good time.”
Norfolk officials hope that because they have insight into what developers might want, they are more set up for success.
“There’s interest that’s already been advanced. If we want them to do it, they want to make the site plan review process faster. We’re going to have to relax the parking requirements and they’re going to have to be able to buy land at an affordable price,” Whitney explains. “If we can do that, there are lots of folks all over the city who are willing to take the risk and try this. The city just has to give a little.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.