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Seattle development and the ‘missing middle’ problem

You know what no one wants to build in Seattle anymore? Duplexes.

Market Urbanism recently dug into the 2015 HUD building numbers as part of a story about how while multi-family than single-family construction is booming, depending on where you live, the “missing middle,” buildings such as the duplex or fourplex, appear to be all but dead.

Take Seattle, for instance.

In 2015, there were 11,340 new housing units permitted in total for the city. 10,530 of them were for multi-family structures (apartment complexes, apartment towers, mixed-use projects, etc.), making up the lionshare of Seattle development. Of those units, 9,822 were in 5+ unit multi-family structures. You know, towers and mixed-users). 422 units were permitted for 3- and 4-unit multi-family structures (triplexes and fourplexes) and only 286 units were permitted for 2-unit multi-family structures (duplexes). That leaves 810 new single family-home permits, in case you were wondering.

That trend is continuing in 2016. So far, 5,395 housing units have been permitted in Seattle. 4,545 are located in 5+ unit multi-family structures, 166 are in 3- and 4-unit multi-family structures, and 222 are in 2-unit multi-family structures. 462 single-family structures have been permitted in 2016 so far.

These trends are even more stark in other King County cities and towns.

Why does it matter? Well in a way, these “missing middle” housing types, the kind usually derided by NIMBYs and residential neighborhoods, would do much more to preserve the “neighborhood character” than any 20-story mixed-use project ever will. As Market Urbanism puts it, “some homeowners, in fact, seem to dislike “missing middle” housing more than any other kind of housing.” It’s partially because of that and because of economic factors that developers are steering clear of duplex & fourplex construction for the most part.

And, as they explain, once a block, street, or neighborhood starts down one developmental path, it’s hard to “go backwards” and build smaller. In effect, if developers aren’t interested in single-family homes and the neighborhood says no to small apartment complexes, the only thing left is big projects. And once the big projects get going in an area, they usually lead to more big projects.

That’s the dilemma at the heart of Mayor Murray’s density push. While Seattle is in desperate need of more housing, there’s a concern that not only will that new housing not be affordable (for the most part) but will also strip Seattle and it’s neighborhoods of any kind of characteristics that made them what they are.

Clearly, developers have made their decision about what kind of housing is going to effective and financially sound for them. Whether or not HALA is able to generate enough affordable housing within that remains to be seen, even with rezoning and density growth. But it’s worth the conversation to consider how people on all sides of this argument are driving Seattle development up into the sky whether they know it or not.

H/T: Mike Eliason