The missing middle: Could what’s missing in Greenville’s housing market be part of the answer to our affordable housing crisis?

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By federal government definition, affordable housing is housing that takes no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. Will Crooks/Greenville Journal

Take a drive around Greenville and you’ll see single-family homes and large apartment buildings.

Some say what’s missing in between could be part of the answer to the city and county’s affordable-housing crisis. “Missing middle” housing is a range of multi-unit or clustered-housing types, compatible in scale with single-family homes, that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living, said Karen Parolek, principal and CFO of Opticos Design, a California-based architecture and urban design firm that coined the phrase.

By putting more units on the same area of land, the cost per unit decreases, making them affordable to a broader range of people, she said.

“Missing-middle housing is affordable by design,” Parolek said.

But the associated increased density has barriers to overcome, not the least of which is resistance from nearby residents.

“People don’t want Manhattan in their backyards,” Parolek said.

Growing need

There’s no question more affordable housing is needed in Greenville, in both the city and the county.

A 2016 study showed a shortage of more than 2,500 affordable housing units in the city of Greenville. Add to that a shortage of more than 9,400 housing units affordable to households earning less than $25,000 per year, a group that makes up more than 23 percent of residents who live in Greenville County but outside the city of Greenville.

It’s no surprise to anybody who has lived in Greenville for long — or is trying to move here — that the price of land in the city is increasing. The average cost of a lot is pushing $60,000 with the shortage of cheap land and increasing regulations, said John Hunt, principal of MarketNsight, an Atlanta-based real estate market analysis firm. That pushes prices of new homes to at least $300,000. That means Greenville’s new-housing market is priced beyond the means of 85 percent of households, he said.

“There’s a shortage of homes for sale, but the shortage is at certain price points,” Hunt said.

In Greenville County, there are 60,000 households whose maximum affordable rent is less than what for-profit developers need to break even, according to a study completed earlier this year by CZB LLC, the Alexandria, Virginia-based urban planning and neighborhood development consulting firm that completed the city study.

Hunt said there are three ways to combat the disparity between the cost and what people can afford: Roll back regulations; move farther out; or build smaller, closer in. Hunt said putting more units on the same area of land causes the cost per unit to decrease and makes them affordable to a broader range of people.

“The issue is not the number of people coming to the region, it’s how we’re accommodating them,” said Andrea Cooper, executive director of Upstate Forever, at a recent “Missing Middle” forum sponsored by her organization, which has pushed to preserve green space and reduce sprawl in the region. “One way to change it is in our control — our land use and housing policy framework. Many are outdated.”

Disconnect

There’s a disconnect between what people think of when they hear “density” and what density can look like, Parolek said. The key is form, she said. Missing-middle housing includes house-scale buildings with multiple units in walkable neighborhoods, she said.

“Every neighborhood built before 1940 has it,” she said.

But conventional zoning, which designates where single-family residential, multifamily housing, and commercial and office uses can go, doesn’t work for missing-middle housing because these building types often have higher densities than allowed for single-family zones but don’t meet the requirements for multifamily-use zones, Parolek said.

“Missing-middle housing is illegal in most cities,” she said. “Zoning is a major problem. In regulating stuff we don’t want, we’re prohibiting what we do.”

With conventional zoning, which is based on use, developers are forced to carve out room for parking, green space, and setbacks, and squeeze a building on whatever’s left. Form-based codes prioritize the form of the building over use.

Helen Sanders of Hughes Development Corp., and wife of Public Education Partners of Greenville County executive director Ansel Sanders, said she believes the missing middle is where the community needs to focus its efforts.

Public school teachers, whose salaries fall into the missing-middle band, are finding it increasingly difficult to find housing they can afford in Greenville. Sanders said two possible locations for teacher-housing projects have fallen through in Greenville because neighbors didn’t want affordable housing and density in their neighborhoods, she said.

“To make the numbers work, there must be more density,” she said.

Unintended consequences

The city of Greenville is studying form-based code, and is exploring things like what can be done to maintain the character of neighborhoods and how to make sure missing-middle housing would not adversely affect neighborhood traffic.

“We’re exploring unintended consequences,” said Nancy Whitworth, the city’s economic development director and interim city manager. “Things are never as simplistic as they appear to be.”

For instance, for missing-middle housing to work, it needs to require fewer off-street parking spaces so the land can be used for housing.

“That ties into public transit,” Whitworth said. If people who live in missing-middle housing are expected to have fewer cars, it requires robust public transit to get people where they need to go. The criticism of Greenlink, Greenville’s bus system, is that service doesn’t cover the county’s biggest employment centers and its hours are insufficient for second- and third-shift workers.

One type of missing-middle housing is accessory dwelling units, also called granny flats, carriage houses, or mother-in-law suites. None are currently permitted in areas of the city zoned single-family residential, but the city knows they exist.

The city’s Residential Infill Task Force considered a proposal a couple of years ago that would have allowed homeowners to apply for a conditional-use permit for a carriage house as long as they made their legal residence at the site, actually lived there more than six months out of the year, and did not receive any rent for the owner-occupied unit. Under the proposal, existing accessory dwelling units that did not meet the definition of a carriage house could be registered during an amnesty period. That would require an application, photo documentation, and a safety check to make sure it met minimum habitability requirements.

Under the proposal, the carriage house would be required to incorporate elements of the principal structure such as building details, massing, and materials. Carriage houses would have to have a separate exterior entrance and could not exceed 50 percent of the principal structure’s footprint or 900 square feet, whichever was less. One off-street parking spot would be required for the granny flat, according to the proposal.

The proposal didn’t go anywhere, and City Councilman Russell Stall said it is time to pick it back up for consideration.

Good fit

Jeff Randolph, whose Randolph Group developed Pendleton West in Greenville’s West End that includes single-family homes, townhomes, and office/work space, said the county’s smaller municipalities make logical places for missing-middle housing because they have significant available land within walking distance of workplaces, shopping, and dining; meet the social requirements for neighborhood living; and have staffs that are not steeped in bureaucracy.

Greenville County Council Chairman Butch Kirven said, “The public resistance to sprawl is real in Greenville County. That trajectory has got to change. Building subdivision after subdivision where the land is cheap is not the formula we’re looking for.”

Both the city and the county are revamping their comprehensive plans, a vehicle Beaufort County used to encourage missing-middle housing in Port Royal, Parolek said.

“A comprehensive plan is a strategic plan, and the zoning code should make it happen,” she said.

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