Missing Middle Housing Projects Small Towns

Missing Middle Housing Opportunities in Small Towns and Rural Communities

During many of our projects for small towns and rural communities we spend some time researching local growth projections and housing needs. This helps to give us a sense of how much development might be realistically anticipated over the timeframe of a plan, as well as appropriate types and intensities.

The first stop for this information is typically the General Plan and, in particular, the Housing Element and its magic-formula RHNA, or Regional Housing Needs Allocation. Our recent work in South Kern led us to these resources in Kern County, as well as to the recently-completed San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, an ambitious vision for the future of all eight Valley counties and how it should grow and change.

As part of the Blueprint project, the Concord Group prepared a Market Demand Analysis for Higher Density Housing that enumerates housing needs in the Valley through 2050. This valuable study provides a lot of data that builds a viable case for the role Missing Middle housing types might play in the Valley, particularly in small towns.

The report reminds us that, despite the recent economic downturn, the Valley as a whole is anticipated for steady and continued growth, with nearly 2.9 million new residents—695,000 new households—expected by 2050. Remarkably, these new residents will trend away from both ownership (increasing percentage of renter households) and single-family detached housing types (increasing percentage of multifamily housing types) as the demographics of the Valley evolve in the next 40 years. Over two thirds of anticipated new households are predicted to be “nontraditional” (such as “empty nester” homes without children, single-person households, and non-family households) and conducive to new types of multifamily housing.

Perhaps most compelling is that while the study acknowledges that a good portion of this housing will trend toward large metro areas, such as Fresno and Bakersfield, which traditionally have provided environments supportive of multifamily housing, small towns, and cities smaller than 50,000 inhabitants—where the vast majority of the Valley’s 3.9 million residents live today—will see steady and continued demand to accommodate new residents at increased densities. In the short term this growth will be fueled by pent-up demand that has resulted from a chronic shortage of multifamily housing. As the report indicates, while actual demand for single-family detached housing typically ranges around 57% in Valley communities, historically the market has, on average, supplied upwards of 90% of housing in this format. With the housing downtown taken into account, some Valley communities now have eight to 10 years of vacant single-family housing supply available to absorb.

A closer look at Kern County helps to shed some additional light on this topic. The report estimates that approximately 140,000 new households will need to be accommodated in Kern by 2050, and that of these households, approximately 39%, or 54,000, can be accommodated in new multifamily housing. While about 24,000 of these units will be expected to locate within metro Bakersfield, the remaining 30,000 can be expected to locate in and around Kern’s small towns and unincorporated communities, in places like Delano, Taft, Lamont, and Arvin. These are huge numbers! That translates to 750 units a year that could make a very positive difference in these places, particularly if they can occur as infill and be designed as integral components of walkable neighborhoods.

The study cites that “heavily amenitized infill locations” provide optimal market conditions for this housing, particularly if it is to remain competitive with surplus single-family housing stock. With increased affordability, small-town character, inherent walkability, and close proximity to open space, infill sites in small communities can meet this need. Many communities are naturally compact, comprised of one or more walkable neighborhoods, and with local downtown businesses and services in close proximity. Multiple vacant and underdeveloped infill sites are typical, providing a real opportunity to leverage this multifamily housing demand to bolster local Main Streets, capitalize on existing infrastructure, and maintain competitiveness with larger cities in the region.

The study uses terms like “townhouses” and “condos/rental flats” when talking about multifamily housing but a little more perspective can be useful when thinking about the context for many of these future housing units. What do we really mean by increased density? While it’s safe to say that in the long term larger cities like Bakersfield will be able to support high-density mixed-use, particularly in central locations and transit-oriented neighborhoods, we may not see these kinds of densities in Delano or Lamont in our lifetimes, and it would be hard to argue that they would be appropriate. On the other hand, Missing Middle housing types such as bungalow courts, townhouses, and duplexes are much more compatible with modestly-scaled small towns and rural communities, and can deliver medium densities of 12 to 36 dwelling units per acre without costly investments in structured parking or complex construction techniques.

Cities and counties can respond by prioritizing infill housing development, especially on vacant and underutilized land on and around community Main Streets and in other core locations that have concentrations of amenities in close proximity. They can also prioritize pedestrian infrastructure in these locations, ensuring that neighborhood sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, and civic spaces all contribute to the value of individual infill parcels and their surrounding neighborhoods. And Form-Based Codes can help to incentivize Missing Middle housing types, providing appropriate templates for potential developers and reducing parking requirements.

The Blueprint suggests that there is a great opportunity for small towns and rural communities in the valley to capture their share of Missing Middle housing. We’ll be talking a little more about this issue at next week’s national APA conference in Chicago. Is your community ready?