In this time of fast and furious change, Northwest Michigan is gathering this month — virtually — to talk about one of the region’s most enduring challenges: housing.

Over the years, housing — whether it’s affordable, attainable, workforce, low-income, market rate — has been an inescapable topic for communities throughout our region. Why? Well, it impacts all of us, from the individuals and families who can’t find homes that fit our budgets to businesses that can’t find workers to schools that are losing students.

And the problem continues to worsen, with construction costs rising and the real estate market on fire, shrinking supply and raising prices even higher for families whose economic future may now be uncertain.

The answer to the problem appears simple: just build more housing. But labor, land and construction costs mean it simply costs too much to build homes at a price that’s affordable to many people. Building at higher densities can lower costs, but when developers propose higher density housing, fears arise that new development will change the character of the community. Often, even residents that support more housing choices oppose these bigger projects. This public opposition can, and often does, derail projects.

What if there were a way to add density gradually, while preserving neighborhood character? Well, happily, there is.

The idea of Missing Middle Housing is a time-honored approach to housing choice. It refers to multi-unit or clustered housing that’s compatible with single family neighborhoods like duplexes, four-plexes, row houses, small apartment buildings and clusters of small homes. These diverse housing options can be added one small development at a time and are often smaller and more affordable than traditional single family homes, as well as walkable, integrated as they are into existing residential neighborhoods.

Far from being a radical new concept, the Missing Middle, like small neighborhood stores and offices, was once taken for granted as a part of the community fabric. If we look around our historic neighborhoods, we can see it everywhere. Single-family homes that have been converted into two- or three-family dwellings, duplexes, small apartment buildings and cottages.

It’s so common, in fact, and so unobtrusive, that we often don’t even notice it. Yet, zoning in many communities has made the Missing Middle illegal, limiting new construction in residential districts to single-family housing, and not much else.

But as household sizes shrink and construction costs rise, there’s more demand for smaller homes than the large single-family homes we’ve zoned our communities for. A 2019 study showed a demand for nearly 15,000 new units in northwest Michigan over the next five years, most of it for smaller housing types like the Missing Middle.

These units are needed by empty nesters, retirees and young people just starting out because all of whom have smaller households, and many have smaller budgets. However, much of our housing stock was, and is, designed for large families, and is often too big and expensive for many of today’s homebuyers and renters.

The Missing Middle accommodates those diverse households while cutting some costs by allowing more homes to be built on a single property. It fits new development onto smaller, more affordable pieces of land throughout the community. And it accommodates housing needs in our neighborhoods without dramatically changing their character.

These benefits have attracted attention across the country and throughout northwest Michigan, where cities and villages are exploring ways — and in some cases, making changes to zoning — to better accommodate the missing middle.

With all this interest, it seems appropriate that the Missing Middle will be front and center at the Northwest Michigan Housing Summit, an annual event coordinated by Housing North and Networks Northwest. With support from the City of Traverse City, the Summit is bringing architect and author Dan Parolek, who coined the term and literally wrote the book on “missing middle housing,” to speak to Northwest Michigan about the subject, why it’s needed, and how communities can make changes needed to accommodate it.

Building housing and making it affordable, particularly now as construction costs rise precipitously, requires a bevy of solutions and the Housing Summit will feature educational sessions and discussion on funding techniques, long-term affordability mechanisms, advocacy, and policy changes that can helps us create the housing we need.

The virtual three-day event, scheduled for Oct. 20-22, is open for registration ($80). To learn more about the Housing Summit, and to register, please visit housingnorth.org.

Sarah Lucas works for Housing North, a nonprofit that supports communities, developers, employers and other stakeholders as they work to create housing in northwest Lower Michigan.

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