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Homeowners Embrace "Missing Middle" Housing, Remain Wary of Large Apartment Development

  • Among homeowners, support for so-called "missing-middle" housing options – the creation of mother-in-law suites and or allowing for duplex/triplex development on current single-family lots – is widespread.
  • But homeowners' support for construction of more-traditional large apartment complexes is much more muted.
  • Support for added housing in general is strongest among homeowners that are younger, lower income and more likely to identify as people of color.

More than three quarters (77%) of homeowners across 20 large metro areas nationwide said that local governments should do more to keep housing affordable in their cities. But while there is general consensus that more housing would help, support for allowing homeowners to add new housing to existing lots and homes is much more robust than support for development of large, multifamily buildings.

Among many economists, there is growing consensus that adding more homes incrementally on existing lots could help curb a growing housing affordability crisis that stems in large part from a shortage of available units in areas that are popular but where it is difficult to add new supply. Allowing homeowners to build mother-in-law units (also called granny flats or accessory dwelling units – "ADUs") and/or otherwise re-zoning current single-family neighborhoods to allow for denser townhome, duplex and triplex redevelopment are among the options proposed by economists and housing advocates. 

The term "ADUs" appeared in 5.7% of home listings nationwide in 2019, up from 1.2% in 2015, which may indicate that officially sanctioned secondary units are fast becoming a valuable selling point. Prior research shows that even modest re-zoning and/or more-widespread embrace of the development of ADUs could spur the creation of millions of new housing units nationwide.

This kind of mid-density housing is often referred to as "missing middle" housing, slotted in between traditional, low-density single-family homes and much larger apartment complexes of several hundred units – development of which is also very much a possibility in some areas. "Missing middle" units are generally more affordable than single-family homes: In 42 of the largest 49 metros with available data, renting a home in a 2-, 3-, and 4-unit building is less expensive than renting a single-family house. Even so, very few of these types of homes have been built in the past 20 years compared to previous decades: They make up only 4.3% of homes built since 2000, compared with 8.2% in the 1980s.

A majority (57%) of homeowners surveyed said they agreed with the idea that they should be allowed to convert their homes to add additional housing units that would fit the missing middle mold, support for larger multifamily buildings was much more muted.

The Importance of Maintaining 'Look & Feel'

Only about a third (37%) of homeowners said they would support a multifamily residence like a large apartment building or complex being built in their neighborhood. And support is even lower among homeowners in mostly single-family neighborhoods – where it only reaches 30%. Much of the resistance seems to be rooted in maintaining a certain low-density aesthetic while still being supportive of adding more homes in less visible and/or immediately disruptive ways. More than three-quarters (76%) of homeowners said they agreed with the statement that "single-family neighborhoods should remain that way." And more than half (54%) of homeowners said that multifamily housing units would be acceptable in their community if they fit into the general "look and feel" of the neighborhood.

Support for larger development is higher among homeowners living in neighborhoods that already have a lot of multifamily development, with 59% of such homeowners saying they are supportive of a new large apartment in their neighborhood. Similarly, 54% of residents in neighborhoods with a mix of multifamily and single-family homes said they support larger multifamily development. Overall support for development of these larger apartments is highest in the Chicago (47%), Miami (45%), Washington, D.C. (44%), and San Francisco (43%) metro areas, and lowest in the Atlanta metro (29%).

West Coast Homeowners More Likely to Embrace ‘Missing Middle’

But while support for larger, more traditional apartment development struggles to break into the majority in any large market analyzed, support for legalization of missing-middle homes is much more broad. General support is highest among homeowners in the San Diego (70%), Seattle (67%), and San Francisco (64%) metro areas. And while every homeowner may not wish to or have the means to pursue the addition of a small, livable unit on their current property, almost a third (30%) of homeowners surveyed said they would be willing to invest money to make their property a multifamily lot if allowed.

Supporters of Additional Housing are Younger and More Diverse

Support for added housing in general is strongest among homeowners that are younger, lower income and more likely to identify as people of color. More than two-thirds (68%) of homeowners age 18-34 and 61% of those aged 35-54 said they agree that homeowners should be allowed to add additional homes to their property, compared to only half (50%) of homeowners age 55 and over. A majority of homeowners in the 18-34 age group (58%) also said they supported a multifamily residence like a large apartment building being built in their neighborhood. 

Almost two thirds (60%) of homeowners with an annual household income less than $50,000 said they agree that homeowners should be allowed to add housing units to their homes – a somewhat higher share than the 56% of homeowners with higher household incomes that said the same. And homeowners of color were more likely to support allowing homeowners to add additional housing units to their property: 67% of African American homeowners and 62% of Latinx/Hispanic and Asian American support it, compared to 54% of white homeowners. Homeowners of color were also more likely to support development of a larger apartment building in their neighborhood (50% of African American, 48% of Latinx/Hispanic, and 46% of Asian American homeowners) than white homeowners (31%).

Density Pros and Cons

Increasing the number of homes in an area does have an impact, which residents perceived as having both positive and negative effects. When asked about the effect of allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family neighborhoods, around half of homeowners said it would have a positive effect on neighborhood amenities like parks and restaurants (50%) and access to public transportation (49%). But they were less optimistic about the impact in other respects: For example, 76% of respondents said parking and traffic would suffer.

Still, about two-thirds of homeowners (64%) said that more homes in single-family neighborhoods would have a positive effect on the overall availability of more-affordable housing options. Overall belief in this positive outcome was highest in the Seattle and Washington DC metro areas (70% of homeowners in each area said so), followed by 68% in the San Jose, San Diego, and Boston metro areas. Even among those homeowners that oppose allowing more home types into single-family neighborhoods, a slight majority (52%) said that allowing such homes would have a positive impact on the availability of more-affordable housing options.

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