Letter to the editor: The muddle of the Missing Middle


We have heard much about the “Missing Middle” lately from the Citizens Housing Commission (CHC). Indeed, the Missing Middle is identified as one of the key motivations for Edmonds to transform its zoning laws and the even its entire housing and neighborhood structure. Although the CHC described aspects of the Missing Middle, it was not adequately defined nor was it put into historical context.  Many Edmonds residents had no clear idea what The Missing Middle is nor why the CHC thought it was such an important element of the housing “crisis” in Edmonds.

Wikipedia defines the Missing Middle as an urban planning scheme that was introduced in 2010 by an architect, Daniel Parolek. He wrote a book about this plan and coined the term “The Missing Middle.”

The Missing Middle is based on a housing arrangement that was common in many cities in the early years of the 20th century; it still exists in some areas of the country. It consisted of a small area or neighborhood consisting of clustered single family to small- and medium-unit buildings that were often located around parks, walkways and small businesses that served the area. Ideally, people could walk to many or even most usual services…groceries, etc. Parolek and his colleagues thought that this was a preferable way for people to live in American cities; they listed many benefits to be enjoyed by the arrangement. Because this type of neighborhood had mostly disappeared in America, Parolek decided it was missing rather than gone, hence the term “Missing Middle”. (See further: missingmiddlehousing.com)

The reason the Missing Middle neighborhood plan had largely disappeared was because people didn’t prefer to live in that kind of neighborhood. Circumstances had changed since the early 20th century. As the urban population became more affluent and mobile, people moved to where they really wanted to live: the suburbs. They preferred [single dwelling] residential neighborhoods which consisted of private homes on private property, mostly with a yard and setbacks from sidewalks. If the Missing Middle type of plan was still popular or desirable, people would not have abandoned it and moved to the suburbs; it would not be missing.

In general, there are two ways for cities to organize: controlled growth or “top-down planning, which usually occurs by government diktat, or by self-organizing, bottom-up, development. While most cities develop by a combination of government and citizen control, the predominant influence is crucial. The most egregious example of top-down city planning was the government-mandated high-rise apartment “Projects” that were built to replace the slums of the inner cities of Chicago, New York, Baltimore and many others. One example of such a Project is the Cabrini -Green Towers in Chicago that became so blighted and unlivable that it was torn down. A lot of capital was wasted on Cabrini-Green and many lives and communities were negatively impacted. Many other projects such as those in New York City and even Syracuse, New York, suffered the same fate. The prominent urban planner Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of American Cities) predicted that Cabrini-Green and similar “Projects” would be abandoned and torn down because the planners neither understood nor cared about the actual needs and desires of the people impacted by their plans. Moreover, they did not trust them to decide for themselves. Jacobs argued that cities should be self-organizing; starting at the level of the individual citizen homeowners.

Edmonds is such a self-organizing city; it has grown from the bottom up. Its growth was driven by the needs, desires and dreams of its residents. So, with relatively little top-down control, such as zoning for commercial, height, utility and safety-related restrictions, Edmonds organized itself into neighborhoods that were mainly single-dwelling homes and others that were multi-family residences. Zoning was enacted to support this arrangement because the citizens wanted to live in that kind of environment. People chose the neighborhood they preferred and could afford. This is how Edmonds became one of the most beautiful and desirable small towns on Puget Sound. Moreover, there is still adequate space for growth in Edmonds without disturbing the existing neighborhood organization.

Government-controlled, top-down city planning fails for many reasons. Most importantly, the planners have an agenda that ignores the aspirations and genuine needs of the citizens. Frequently there is almost always a “crisis” (like the Missing Middle) that must be addressed. Moreover, they don’t trust the citizens to make their own decisions about their homes and neighborhoods or even cutting down their own trees, an ongoing issue in Edmonds now. A striking (but not isolated) example of this kind of thinking was articulated by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was quoted as saying that private property rights were the biggest impediment to city planning and government’s ability to determine which building goes where, who gets to live in it and who sets the rent (Wall Street Journal, Notable and Quotable, Sept 6, 2017).  (De Blasio Rails Against  Concept of Private Property, Says it Impedes NYC’s “Socialistic Impulse’ (freebeacon.com)

We see that same lack of respect for self-organizing and private property rights here in Edmonds. Upzoning for single-residential properties is an egregious intrusion on our private property rights and the right to choose the style of our neighborhoods. Moreover, many of the other CHC recommended changes appear to be on based on specious arguments supported by “boiler-plate” recommendations from expensive consultants. Like the Missing Middle” crisis,” many of their recommendations are dubious. Examples include the demands of the Growth Management Act (which we have already satisfied); the claim that most elderly people want to downsize; the need for Detached Dwelling Accessory Units (DADUs) to accommodate an expected increase in population, and the list goes on. The need for affordable housing is cited as an important issue but it has been repeatedly shown that the newly created “Missing Middle” dwellings will not be affordable…they will be expensive.

So who benefits? The developers, contractors and realtors will benefit as will the city government as a result of the increase in tax revenues. Also, those who believe we should have a more [government] controlled society where they, not we, will choose what our cities should look like and where we should live; they will be pleased.

Who won’t benefit? The intended beneficiaries still won’t be able to afford to live in Edmonds. A small number will be subsidized but the burden will fall on the citizens of Edmonds who will see significant increases in their taxes. As an unintended consequence, this will force some people out of their homes; especially elderly people and others with fixed incomes.  Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, the city will not retain its charm and culture: it will degrade as has Ballard and so many other communities.

In the coming primary and election for city council, specifically ask your candidate what is their position on the recommendations of the CHC and the long-term impact on Edmonds. Vote carefully because it only takes a majority of one city councilmember to change Edmonds as we know it. Those changes will hurt Edmonds, not improve it, and most likely will be irreversible.

Gerald Bernstein

  1. Very well written and respectfully stated! I hope that all people livIng in Edmonds who appreciate this perspective, and especially value the current Edmonds way of life, will respond in support of this perspective in letters to the council, letters to the editor, in public and/or at council meetings. your opinion, your values and your voice is very important right now!

  2. Very well put. I attended College in Chicago not far from the Cabrini-Green Towers which were indeed a catastrophe, and as noted in your editorial, were torn down as a failed experiment. If you want to keep Edmonds the special town that it is, be sure that you vote for a candidate who agrees with you regarding the CHC recommendations.

  3. This excellent letter provides history and present day perspective…what is the “Missing Middle” and the failures and intentions of the move to embrace the concept.
    We, the citizens of Edmonds, need to take note of the impacts of the CHC recommendations. Although some members of that committee had good intentions, the outcome will change our town forever and will not provide affordable housing. This is a government control/power move. Make sure that Edmonds is developed in the bottom-up mode and we will continue to love our town…top-down does not work. Let’s all pay attention to the City Council candidates philosophy re CHC proposals and vote accordingly.

  4. Thank you Gerald for the well researched and well written article.
    The CItizens Housing Commission (CHC) in Edmonds had no elected Citizen Chairperson – Director Shane Hope “self appointed” herself as the leader, so that the whole CHC process was lead in a Government “top down” manner.
    Edmonds is meeting all of its growth targets in its existing Comprehensive Plan, which is how growth is managed in our city, and state-wide.
    This CHC process was and is a City Council Government lead circumvention of our current approved plan.
    Citizens of Edmonds beware and do your own assessment of who supports proper, citizen lead growth strategies for Edmonds to retain its uniqueness and charm, and whom is driving for “politicized” outcomes, like up-zoning of the entire city and eliminating single family zoning.

  5. This was a very informative article that adds greatly to the discussion I think. Playing the devil’s advocate a bit, I think the hidden issue here is the rights of the individual property owner in relation to the needs of the society in general. Just how much government intervention is good in relation to housing needs and when does government intervention become overly invasive and burdensome to freedom of choice? It strikes me that this is a fine line that needs to be tread very carefully. In many instances, I think the DADU issue should almost be considered on a case by case basis rather than broad neighborhood zoning laws, in Edmonds at least. There is a lot at stake here for everyone and one size fits all probably won’t work well. What happened in Ballard is people built DADUs then used them as high rental revenue projects or fast buck real estate flipping ventures to gain capital to locate elsewhere. I heard a rumor that many of these current Edmonds’ home purchases over asking price are cash deals by relatively young people which I found amazing, if true.

  6. This is a great article for understanding some of the complexity of housing issues. I would like to add that knowing the efficacy of some of these proposals is very important. Much of what is being considered in housing policy such as “missing middle” housing types, upzoning throughout all neighborhood, inclusionary zoning are simply theoretical approaches generated through urban planning and equity studies think tanks but have not been put to the test of reality. Yesterday, in The Seattle Times, an article was published that does address the issue of efficacy [https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/seattle-struck-a-grand-bargain-on-housing-now-city-hall-is-reviewing-the-initial-results/] and the results were not particularly supportive of upzoning or inclusionary zoning. I think a citizen-generated approach holds richer promise than a government approach based on untested theory.

  7. When I was growing up, if you could not afford to live there, you couldn’t live there. Or find a roommate. MLT and LW can better solve whatever housing problem we have, but not Edmonds.

    If seniors are facing too-high property taxes, give them relief, but don’t rezone the whole community.

  8. I agree. Abandon the ‘missing middle’ housing stock plan.

    We need to focus on the Missing Bottom.

    What is the Missing Bottom?

    The Missing Bottom is a lack of housing supply that needs to be created for BELOW median income households so they can gain wealth through home ownership and pass it on to their next generation.

    What’s your plan?

  9. Great article GB. We will meet the GMA targets. The data the Housing commission used to suggest the number of new houses needed is overstated. Average household size is increasing. Empty nesters and surviving spouses leave and new families buy the home and go form a family of 1 or 2 to a family of 4 or more. No new building but more people.

    The new child subsidy of $300 per kid per month will increase families abilities to pay the added costs of a home in Edmonds. More families will have the resources to move here.

    Great stuff GB.

  10. Well put Gerry!

    In the election ballot sitting on my desk I looked for the position of public servant but found mostly candidates who clearly think election success will entitle them to be public dictator! Never having been taught the difference we citizens have to educate them.

  11. With high tension in Edmonds, a possible innocent statement may have unintended racial bias. In the LTE, “The reason the Missing Middle neighborhood plan had largely disappeared was because people didn’t prefer to live in that kind of neighborhood.” A movie that goes graphically over the top to demonstrate racial discrimination in the suburbs is Suburbicon. The website depicting highlights, opens with the statement: “Suburbia was always poisoned. Not much in US history is as blandly shameful as the National Housing Act of 1934.” https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/nov/24/suburbicon-highlights-the-racial-red-lines-of-the-burbs-but-they-were-always-a-horrifying-construct

    There are more movies on different types of discrimination in the suburbs, and all for me, difficult to watch. Some disturbing movies are worth watching once. I’d never want to watch them again, but the point stays with me. Suburbicon was grossly out of my zone, but I got through it. Perhaps reading the above referenced website’s opening page will provide enough information for those who would prefer to skip the movie.

    This excerpt I found on the LTE’s referenced MissingMiddle.com, “…It’s called “missing” because it has not been allowed in many communities since the mid-1940s and “middle” because it sits in the middle of the housing-type spectrum between detached single-family homes and mid-rise to high-rise apartment buildings. While conversations about missing middle housing and why it’s important all communities have enough of it aren’t new, they’re becoming louder and more frequent because wages aren’t keeping up with housing costs. That’s because – as you’ve seen me write in the past – we haven’t built enough housing to keep up with demand at all price points…” “Source https://missingmiddlehousing.com , Housing Next Missing Middle Crunch Requires All of Us to Solve It Ryan Kilpatrick, April 21, 2021

    Perspectives differ when it comes to individuality, growing up, current life, and future desires. Consider a facilitated discussion (ehem, Ms. Whipple 🙂 of mixed generations, ethnicities, and incomes, including, if possible, under 18, people who grew up in the country, the burbs, towns, cities and large cities.

  12. The “missing middle” is a meaningless slogan to soften us up for the City’s apparent plan to abolish single family zoning, raise taxes, and build taxpayer-funded public housing projects. There is no problem here, just a drive to increase the power and cost of government.

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