Missing Middle housing. All images from the panel slideshow.

Would you like to own a townhouse? Is it tough to afford one? If so, you're not alone.

A recent panel at the Urban Land Institute's Real Estate Trends conference looked at the housing needs of the "missing middle"—families making about $60-90,000, or 80-120% of the Area Median Income. Many are young families or retired seniors now on fixed incomes. They make too much to benefit from government affordable housing programs (which aren't sufficient, anyway), but not enough to keep up with the District's current townhouse real estate market.

The moderator, Hickok Cole Architects co-founder Yolanda Cole, pointed out that millennials ages 20-34 increased their numbers inside the District by 34% from 2000-2010, while many baby boomers also want to retire to the city; middle-income residents get squeezed.

And many of them want townhouses; according to Evan-Regan Levine of JBG, the prices for townhouses have risen faster, post-recession, than condos; inside the District, that effect is even more pronounced than in the region as a while.

The average DC townhouse now costs nearly $750,000, Levine added; the average 25-34 year old buying real estate for the first time doesn't have enough savings to afford a 20% down payment, even if salaries are high enough to afford the mortgage long term. (That's why a lot of home buyers depend on gifts from parents or grandparents, which puts black residents, whose grandparents were discriminated against through redlining, covenants, and more, at a big disadvantage.)

Almost no townhouses for sale in DC under $1 million lie west of 16th Street, basically forcing new homebuyers to consider only half the city and hastening price rises on the east side:

What can be done?

The panelists talked about different ways to build homes at the sizes needed to make it more affordable. Levine explained that traditional townhouses are about 20-23 units per acre; if the number can double, to about 45, it can offer significantly more affordable prices.

On the panel, Harriet Tregoning, DC's former planning director and more recently Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at HUD, suggested "accessory apartments" as one way to add this kind of housing. DC legalized accessory apartments as part of its recent zoning update, but with significant conditions. Tregoning said they "provide infill to restore historic levels of density without much impact and are virtually invisible," since they would be only in basements or backyards.

Levine and fellow panelist Rohit Anand of KTGY shared examples from other cities which have fit more townhouses into smaller spaces, like these examples in Los Angeles and Toronto:

This development on a hill in Seattle, designed by Neiman Taber Architects, involves two rows of townhouses with shared outdoor space in between. Parking spaces are under the outdoor decks, avoiding the need to dig underground while not wasting land on just cars.

Other solutions "stack" the townhouses, fitting 2-4 units together each of which comprise the square footage of a townhouse, some outdoor space, and parking in most cases.

In our region there are many examples of "stacked townhouses," though mostly in new developments in Maryland and Virginia. In the District, zoning generally does not allow such things unless larger apartment buildings are also permitted, in which case those get built instead.

Besides possibly offering lower cost, these kinds of solutions let families grow as their budgets and numbers of children expand. People can start out by renting out part of a home, then change it to a home office, then to a nursery, Levine explained. Or people can convert garages to living space in jurisdictions with lower parking minimums (DC's are fairly low compared to peer cities in this respect.)

If DC wanted to enable more lower-cost housing, it could explore ways to get allow some of these in current townhouse areas and/or single-family home areas. So far, Tregoning said, there's been an "unfortunate trend of downzoning this missing middle housing," with a number of changes making zoning more restrictive with minimal public debate such as limiting the numbers of units on a lot and then limiting how far back an addition can go.

Tregoning said these changes are "counter to needs of the city; now that they set the precedent, there will be continued pressure to downzone." Instead, she said, "we should be finding ways to liberalize the provision of missing middle housing."


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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.