The Neighborhood Veto and the 'Missing Middle'

Community resistance may explain why smaller apartment buildings are hard to build.

Read Time: 3 minutes

April 15, 2016, 6:00 AM PDT

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn


Brownstones

Brian Goodman / Shutterstock

Every so often, I read something like this: "The only reason people wanted to downzone their neighborhood was because they didn't want 100-story skyscrapers" or "most people can tolerate density as long as you reason with them and don't build too much." The basic theory underlying these kind of statements is: anti-development activists aren't opposed to development, they are just opposed to humongous development, and if we just build duplexes and small apartment buildings (or, as new urbanists like to say, the "missing middle" between detached houses and large apartment buildings) they will not be controversial. 

But this theory does not always correspond with reality. For example, yesterday I had a conversation with a local lawyer who was outraged that someone had turned a house in her neighborhood into a duplex. The homeowner had not built a 100-story skyscraper, or even a 10-story apartment building. They had just added one housing unit—but to my acquaintance, one was too many. Why? In this intown neighborhood, homeowners park on the street. And to my acquaintance, one new resident meant one new parking space, which in turn means that someone might lose their God-given right to park in front of the house.  

Thus, homeowners' desire to park their cars on public streets means that even one new unit of housing may be met with community outrage. In other words, even the tiniest bit of housing development will be controversial.* (Although this story involves just one incident, I have read plenty of other stories about neighbors opposing small apartment buildings and rowhouses.)

Neighborhood concerns about parking may be one reason why the "missing middle" has become more rare in recent decades. Someone who builds a 20-story high-rise might, if government demands it, find a way to add parking, and to pass the costs on to tenants or condo-buyers. But someone who adds a unit to their house (or even a small apartment building) might not be able to add parking so easily. Thus, in urban areas parking may actually be more of an obstacle to “missing middle” housing than to high-rises.

Moreover, a large developer has more ability to negotiate than someone building a four-plex or an accessory unit. If I want to build a 35-story high-rise, and my neighbors object to it, I might be able to shave a few stories off the building and still make a profit. By contrast, if I am turning my house into a duplex, I don't have much room to negotiate: either I build an extra unit or nothing at all.

So paradoxically, the current zoning system of "rule by neighbors" may be designed to prevent a city of skyscrapers—but by making approval of small buildings difficult, the system actually may shift investment capital into larger buildings. 

Is this a problem? If you worry about affordable housing, probably yes, since even small buildings add to the housing supply. If you favor a "human-scale city" combining walkable neighborhoods and small buildings, probably yes, because the status quo prevents new small buildings from being built.  

On the other hand, if you believe housing for current residents' cars is more important than additional housing for people, or if you just like your cities dominated by tall buildings and detached single-family homes, the status quo is perfectly fine. 

So what's the alternative? If you want to bring back the "missing middle" the logical solution is to treat duplexes and small apartment buildings like single-family homes—that is, to make them an as-of-right use wherever a single-family house is an as-of-right use.**

*According to my acquaintance, the unit was approved by the city only because the homeowner had misled the government into thinking that the unit would be used for a music studio. So because of parking, housing is now more controversial than music. 

**For a more detailed discussion of how to use form-based codes to allow "missing middle" housing, go here


Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn.

Chicago Commute

The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

January 26, 2023 - Angie Schmitt

Sharrow bike markings on black asphalt two-lane road with snowy trees

Early Sharrow Booster: ‘I Was Wrong’

The lane marking was meant to raise awareness and instill shared respect among drivers and cyclists. But their inefficiency has led supporters to denounce sharrows, pushing instead for more robust bike infrastructure that truly protects riders.

January 26, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

View of stone-paved street with pedestrians and "Farmers Market" neon sign on left and old buildings on right in Seattle, Washington

Push and Pull: The Link Between Walkability and Affordability

The increased demand for walkable urban spaces could make them more and more exclusionary if cities don’t pursue policies to limit displacement and boost affordability.

January 27, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

A tent covered in blue and black tarps sits on a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk with the white ziggurat-topped L.A. City Hall looming in the background

L.A. County Towns Clash Over Homelessness Policies

Local governments often come to different conclusions about how to address homelessness within their respective borders, but varying approaches only exacerbate the problem.

3 hours ago - Shelterforce Magazine

Rendering of mixed-use development with parks and stormwater retention on former Houston landfill site

A Mixed-Use Vision for Houston Landfill Site

A local nonprofit is urging the city to consider adding mixed-use development to the site, which city officials plan to turn into a stormwater detention facility.

4 hours ago - Urban Edge

Aerial view of downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin at sunset

Milwaukee County Makes Substantial Progress on Homelessness

In 2022, the county’s point-in-time count of unhoused people reflected just 18 individuals, the lowest in the country.

5 hours ago - Urban Milwaukee

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.