An anti-missing-middle sign in Hayes Barton, one of the state's most affluent neighborhoods. Credit: Brett Villena

The Raleigh City Council’s progressive missing-middle-housing policy looks like it’s here to stay following a conversation last week between longtime council members and newly elected representatives. 

Some voters were worried that the city council’s four new members, elected in November of 2022, would push to end “missing middle,” a set of policy changes that allow developers to build a greater variety of housing units such as duplexes, townhomes, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in traditionally single-family neighborhoods. The policy was a focal issue during the last election and remains a major focus of today’s debates over local politics. 

Many older, longtime homeowners adamantly oppose the policy, arguing it damages “neighborhood character,” has a negative impact on the environment, and doesn’t actually guarantee the creation of more affordable housing. Other city residents argue that the missing-middle policy is a long-overdue update to Raleigh’s exclusionary zoning practices, which helped contribute to the current affordability crisis. 

Despite extreme arguments on both sides, the city council seems poised to compromise on possible reforms to the missing-middle policy. During a workshop last week, council members talked about addressing residents’ concerns about affordable housing, community engagement, and the environment. 

Affordable housing

One common complaint about missing middle is that it doesn’t guarantee the construction of affordable homes. During a series of neighborhood meetings earlier this year, dozens of people brought up affordability as one of their top concerns about the missing-middle policy. 

“I’m in Boylan Heights, an older neighborhood that does have a lot of these missing middle types,” said one Raleigh resident, according to a report by city staff. “The costs have gone up so much that my neighbors could not afford to buy now.”

Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin and other city council members have argued that the policy itself will help create more affordable housing. Smaller homes, by their nature, are more affordable than large, single-family homes in the same area. Older neighborhoods like Boylan Heights and Oakwood will continue to be expensive, but the policy also creates room for smaller homes in other parts of Raleigh, where property values are generally lower.

“Across the country, [people using missing-middle] are simply trying to return development rules to what they were before World War II,” says Eric Braun, a former land use lawyer and six-year member of the Raleigh Planning Commission. “[Those neighborhoods had] different types of housing and even small, small commercial uses. If [the policy] is allowed to really develop over time and be implemented fully, it allows people that have different income levels to move to more places across the city.”

When it comes to guaranteeing that new construction is affordable, the city council is limited in what it can legally do. Inclusionary zoning, a tool that mandates developers build affordable homes, is banned under state law. Last week, however, council members talked about possibly raising that issue with the state legislature, as well as exploring other strong tools they could use to incentivize affordable housing. 

“One of the ongoing themes is really affordability, regardless of the [housing] type. That’s something we can look at,” said Mayor Pro Tem Corey Branch during the work session. “Look at the tools we have available currently, and if there’s something else that may be out there. Have conversations with county, state, and federal government about options to incentivize affordability.”

Baldwin added that the city council is working with the Urban Land Institute on a study that will help members learn what other cities are doing to incentivize affordable missing-middle housing. 

An opulent home in Hayes Barton. Credit: Brett Villena

New council members focused more strongly on affordable housing, suggesting the city council should be doing more. 

“This is a continual need,” said council member Jane Harrison. “As we accelerate redevelopment opportunities here, we have to think about displacement pressures …. What are we already doing in terms of antidisplacement work? … How do we also tie that back to this missing-middle program, so that it’s clear we are making those commensurate investments? So we are not further pushing people from their neighborhoods?” 

Harrison suggested the city council consider developing an antidisplacement plan, like the one created by the city of Portland, Oregon. She also asked about instituting new rules for the sizes of homes allowed to be built under the “missing middle” policy. Limiting square footage, she said, could contribute to affordability. 

City council member Megan Patton agreed, saying she wanted the city council to explore tweaking missing-middle rules on square footage and setbacks to “get construction that will lend itself to affordable options.” Council member Christina Jones said she wants to ensure the city council delivers on its promises to increase affordability. 

“I don’t want to say we’re gonna do this and then not have it in place so it’s effective and really helping the people that need it,” she said. 

City staff are expected to give a report to the city council later this year on the number and types of homes that have been constructed under the missing-middle policy.

Community engagement

One of the biggest complaints about missing middle is that it prevents residents from commenting on or managing new construction projects. Under the city council’s old rules, developers who planned to build townhomes or apartments in traditional single-family neighborhoods might have been required to notify nearby residents and hold community meetings to discuss their plans.

In the age of community advisory councils (CACs), residents sometimes banded together to oppose such projects, forcing the developer to compromise on the construction design or recommending the city council deny a rezoning request. 

Under the missing-middle policy, developers can now build many different types of housing “by right,” without notifying residents or requesting a change to zoning rules from the city council. This has angered longtime Raleigh residents who don’t want developers building taller, denser buildings in their neighborhoods, especially ones that don’t “fit in” with the existing aesthetic. 

“[The unified development ordinance] can seem like a rubber stamp—projects go through without any public comment,” said one resident during a series of meetings on missing middle, according to a report by city staff. “[The] surrounding community could provide valuable feedback.”

Another resident put it more bluntly: “The problem I have is that we no longer have any input; council has given the role to the staff to decide.”

With missing middle back on the table, the city council could add notification or neighborhood meeting requirements to the policy, which might hamstring developers who want to take advantage of the now-flexible zoning rules. On the issue of community engagement, council member Jonathan Melton said he was happy to discuss possible changes to the missing-middle policy but had some concerns. 

“If we require a neighborhood meeting, with the understanding that the intent of these text changes is to allow these developments by right, I’m worried people are going to come with the expectation that there’s going to be some sort of vote or impact on the process, and that’s not going to be there,” he said. “We have to be careful about that, because we don’t want to create more confusion.”

Moreover, Melton said, why should a neighborhood meeting be required for townhomes but not single-family homes, if both are being built under the same zoning rules? 

“If someone can build a mansion next to my house and I have no say in [it] … because that’s their property and that’s allowed by right, why do I have to weigh in if someone can build a duplex or a quad or some townhomes?” Melton said. “What message are we sending about the types of people that live in big, single-family, expensive homes, and the types of neighbors we welcome into multifamily living?”

Council member Jones, also former chair of the Raleigh CAC, was one of the biggest advocates for more community engagement when it comes to missing middle. 

During the community meetings the city held earlier this year, there were some very heated discussions between residents and city staff. Those show that people are frustrated with how missing middle was enacted, with little community engagement, Jones said. 

“I understand it was COVID … but now the community’s out here, asking to be heard and we have to do that,” Jones said. “That just speaks to how much this community wants to be involved in the decision. That community engagement piece is critical. We can’t do this without their voices. I’m really looking forward to seeing how we can reform.”

Other city council members, including Harrison and Mary Black, agreed community engagement was an important piece of missing middle. Although the city was able to get a more diverse population to participate in the missing-middle meetings earlier this year, young people, renters, and people of color were still underrepresented. 

Still, “I feel like we’re on the right track,” said Pat Young, the city’s director of planning and development. “The social media engagement was much more than we’ve ever done, and using radio ads to reach the Black community. It moved the needle. There was a lot more diversity at these meetings than in previous engagements. [It] still didn’t reach the level of full representation, but it was a big improvement.”

Melton and Black each said they wanted to see more young people and renters participate in discussions. Black added that it was important for the city to continue to reach out to people of color and people across different income levels. 

“As a young renter in the city, I think it’s important for us to be activating our own political autonomy in talking about the city we want to create,” Black said. 

“What I hear when I talk to renters is that they don’t feel a part of this process—that things are changing and growing, but it’s happening to them, without their concerns being a part of it. We have opportunities now to be really thoughtful about [engagement], especially with regards to renters, since we make up so much of the population.”

Neighborhood character

Overall, new council members seemed on board with the missing-middle policy, although the city council as a whole plans to continue discussing possible reforms. Harrison in particular wants to ensure trees continue to be protected, possibly through changes to the missing middle rules around setbacks and neighborhood transitions. The city council is also still working on a new policy to enact tree protections for lots under two acres. 

“As a young renter in the city, I think it’s important for us to be activating our own political autonomy in talking about the city we want to create.”

Harrison and Patton each said the city should continue educating residents about how zoning rules have changed and give them an easy way to find out about the rules in their area. Both have heard from people in their districts who are confused about what is and isn’t allowed under the missing-middle policy. 

Ultimately, one of the strongest statements on missing middle came from Patton, who said she wanted to look at how (and why) missing middle allows large construction projects on small lots. This could lead to a discussion about reducing the overall density allowed by the policy.

“There’s a big spectrum here,” she said. “OK, a duplex [can be built right beside me]. That is a modest change. But there are ways people can assemble larger lots. Then, suddenly a community’s looking at something like 16 townhomes being built on the acre of land next to them. That feels a little more impactful …. I think we could use some analysis there.” 

Patton’s statement likely alluded to the controversial townhome project in Hayes Barton, where a developer plans to build 17 townhomes on about two acres. Nearby homeowners are suing Raleigh over the project in hopes of overturning missing middle entirely. So whether the future of the policy will be determined by the city council or by a judge remains to be seen.

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