Build Small Live Large draws large crowd

States Must Take Lead on Missing Middle Housing

A Q&A with Missing Middle’s ‘creator’ Daniel Parolek

The term “Missing Middle” has been attributed to Daniel Parolek, Founding Principal of Opticos Design, Inc., a Bay Area firm. He has championed the Missing Middle strategy to urban planners, and created a website,, dedicated to the subject. To acknowledge his many contributions to urban planning, we reached out to him recently and asked for his views on Missing Middle topics that the Build Small Live Large 2019 will explore in detail. The following are extracts from the Q&A with Parolek.


How did you originally arrive at the Missing Middle concept? In other words, how did you decide that those words fit the problem you wanted to address?

Daniel Parolek: We had focused on these range of housing types (duplex, fourplex, cottage court, courtyard apartment, etc.) since 2000 in our architecture and urban design practice. I wrote a book called “Form-Based Codes” that was released in 2007 by Wiley. The research for this book made me realize how many barriers were inherent in zoning for missing middle housing. Zoning was a big reason it was missing.  …Over these years, we analyzed many cities’ zoning codes, and as a start, it was because almost no city’s zoning codes were allowing it. The middle became important because of the middle scale and form that enables it to reside comfortable on a block, even next to single family homes. …The name Missing Middle Housing, which I first used in a presentation in 2011 at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, was an easy-to-remember, non-threatening way to frame this discussion about the need for housing choice.

What are the ideal conditions for implementing the Missing Middle solution?

DP: Walkability or access to mobility options (biking, transit, buses, etc.) is key for these types because if you try to park too many cars on the site of these buildings, they often do not pencil out economically, and the parking often compromises the design. In addition, these units are often smaller because people are either choosing to live smaller or ok to living in a smaller unit in exchange for easy access to a coffee shop, restaurants, services, etc.  The demand is everywhere. One-third of baby boomers and two-thirds of millennials want walkable urban living, and missing middle can deliver this at a neighborhood scale.

Has it been difficult to explain the concept to any of the parties who need to be involved in implementing it?

DP: The interesting thing is that the general public often understands the concept more quickly than planners who have been trained in density, FAR based thinking that we really need to get away from to create policy, plans, and zoning to enable these diverse housing choices.

What is the best way to talk about the value of Missing Middle housing to a) current neighborhood residents; b) the design/build community; c) legislators and policymakers?

DP: Residents: More attainable price points, diverse communities. These types can enable your local school teachers, fire fighters, other blue collar workers to live in a community instead of having to drive 2 or more hours to work. My neighborhood in Berkeley has a great mix of small single family bungalows and missing middle types (like many great neighborhoods in Portland). My sons first grade teacher lives down the street from us in a triplex. Here mom, who is also a first grade teacher at the same school lives in the second unit in this triplex, and her brother-in-law, who is the PE teacher at my daughter’s middle school, lives in the third unit. This is how missing middle delivers choice and diverse communities.

Design/build: Meeting the growing demand for walkable living. Differentiation in what they are selling compared to competitors. Responding to shifting household demographics. Using missing middle to achieve more attainable price points with rising costs of labor, land, materials, entitlement.

Legislators/policymakers: Local jurisdictions have not been able to make the tough decisions they have needed to, especially in high demand regions, to address the housing needs. Therefore state-level legislation is needed to address the housing issues in these areas. The state of Oregona’s recently passed legislation is an example that will allow up to 4 units on any lot, including those now zoned for single family.

How can we ensure that a certain portion of Missing Middle housing will remain affordable in growing urban areas?

We can get creative with tools like Land Trusts or giving missing middle density bonuses that allow more units within the same form and scale of building if the builder achieves certain affordability targets. In higher demand/value markets, it is likely that zoning in areas that are currently single family will need to change to allow this missing middle types to provide any sort of attainability/affordability. Also, in higher value markets, more units will likely need to be allowed on an individual lot to make the evolution to missing middle types happens. This does need to be done thoughtfully, but is an important part of a solution for these markets.

Daniel Parolek is the founder of Opticos Design Inc., which works with cities across the country to analyze zoning, planning, and policy barriers and makes targeted recommendations to remove them in what Opticos calls a Missing Middle Scan. Greenville County and the City of Greenville, South Carolina is our latest work on this front.


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