Fixing America Starts With How We Live
How restoring The Missing Middle can fix our polarized society
America is a land of polarity. We’re starkly divided by politics, religion, foreign affairs, public figures, art, and cultural touchstones. If there’s something that can be disputed, chances are two otherwise reasonable people will take either side of that argument. Depending on who one’s speaking with, things can come across as all good, or all bad. Nuance gets little breathing room. Emotions take over conversations until strict lines are drawn pitting groups against one another. Those who find themselves in the middle are forced to pick sides. Those who don’t want to choose a side, exit the conversion entirely. This is, of course, bad.
Our economic system is polarized. Divisions from rising inequality and the squeezing out of the middle class play a prominent role in our national discourse, and impact tens of millions of people. The physical world around us is rife with polarities as well. People are quick to self-identify with the type of places they live in (urbanite v. suburbanite v. country dweller), incredulous that others would choose to live in areas different than the kind they prefer.
But instead of contradictions shaped by beliefs, economic and built environment polarity are created through policy. They’re the products of inefficient (or outright harmful) legislation, codes, and incentives that can often feel antithetical to prevailing empirical data and lived experience. For many Americans, where one lives is as much of their choice as their economic well being. Which is to say, not as much as would be popularly believed.
What’s causing the polarity in where we live, and what are its ongoing consequences? Can changing how we live help bridge divides among people, and improve our lives in the process? Or are these just the optimistic musings of someone who’s not fully bought into “how we do things” in America?
How our built environment became polarized
For those who follow my pieces, my initial response to how we’ve become polarized will sound like the same old song and dance; Zoning. But I promise you, it remains as true here as in all of the previous cases — a testament to the destructive nature of this wicked institution. While there are certainly cultural considerations outside of the realm of zoning that explain why certain people like to live in certain places, the artificial constraints that it mandates on our built form are designed to polarize, and exaggerate those desires.
Zoning, at its most fundamental, and definitional level, divides uses. From its earliest interventions, it was deployed as a tool of segregation. In the 1928 decision of Euclid v. Ambler Realty, the landmark case that gave us our modern zoning state (the prevailing form of American zoning is called Euclidean zoning), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Town of Euclid, Ohio. The ruling held that it was permissible for Euclid to stop the outward industrial expansion of Cleveland via zoning, as it was a valid use of Euclid’s police powers. There was a legitimate public interest in maintaining the character of the neighborhood as residential (read, not industrial). Thus, the judicial precedent for the codified segregation of place by use was established.
This precedent gave legal standing for cities and towns around the country to adopt similar zoning laws. And adopt they did. From a previous piece;
As there are nearly 20,000 incorporated places in the US, with the vast majority of them home to fewer than 10,000 people, most towns didn’t (or don’t) have the time or the resources to develop their own codes. It was simply easier to copy what neighboring places did. And so, standard codes were transcribed from one municipality to the next.
But they didn’t just segregate these uses within traditional development patterns. Our zoning codes were forged at a time (~the 1920s–1950s) when Modernism became the dominant school of urban planning thought. Its central tenet was a rejection of the past, in an embrace of the future and all of the technologies that came with it. These technologies, it was presumed, would liberate people from the destitution, insalubrity, and danger of the cities of the time. What better technology to embrace as the savior of all urban ills than the most exciting innovation of the time, the private car?
Not only did the private car allow for a mobilization away from the many challenges that post-war urban life presented, but it also fit snugly as a symbol of personal autonomy and freedom. It served as the antithesis of the struggling collective of communism in the backdrop of the Cold War. The embrace of the car wasn’t just about technological progress or quality of life improvements, but at a national level, it represented a kind of dutiful patriotism. Buy American. Drive American. Be American.
In order to facilitate this future of motordom, there had to be roads. A lot of roads. With National Defense top of mind, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law in 1956, which provided $25 billion (~$250 billion in 2022 dollars) in funds for the construction of 41,000 miles of highways. This was an unprecedented public investment. 90% of the costs were assumed by the federal government. With so much free money floating around, States scrambled to get roads built, and built, and built.
This stretched our cities out and claimed millions of acres for the legion of segregated uses. But this didn’t solidify the polarization of our built environment. It was merely the structure built upon the foundation of zoning. For this, there’s one last piece of the puzzle to consider.
In order to build new homes, or anything, really, it costs money. A lot of money. Because of this, most people who build new homes (developers), don’t have all of the money upfront to complete their projects. To bridge the gap between what they have and what they need, they take out debt from lenders. Lenders, in turn, need to have some security in making what can often times be risky loans. You don’t want to extend a loan for a building site, only to have the developer flee in the middle of the night, leaving you holding a vacant plot of land you’re ill-equipped to do anything with. Historically, this tension was a strong barrier to financing development. But in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created through the National Housing Act to give lenders the confidence they previously didn’t have, by federally insuring private loans made in the housing market. And it worked. Millions of homes were constructed.
But these loans, by design, segregated. First, and most insidiously, they segregated by race. The FHA refused to guarantee any mortgages for properties where African Americans, or other marginalized groups, would live. This effectively prohibited Black and minority groups from mobilizing themselves through homeownership, and damned them to stagnation under the yoke of oppressive mid-century urban polices. The knock on effects from this continue today. While the families who were able to buy homes insured by the FHA have been able to build wealth over several generations through home equity appreciation and the stability ownership confers, those families that were restricted from buying homes were institutionally disadvantaged, deprived of future opportunities, and subsequently set back several generations. The seeds of much of our economic inequality were sowed here.
The disgusting (and wrong) stereotypes that certain groups of people are inherently poor, or less able to mobilize themselves, is the byproduct of decades of this de jure oppression and marginalization. Thanks to recent scholarship, these injustices are coming to light, and helping to inform new policy. One can hope we’re finally on the long path towards rectifying discrimination in the built environment.
Second, and less well documented, these loans’ segregated by intensity in the built environment. The FHA only insured the construction of single family homes. No duplexes. No corner stores. And definitely no apartment buildings. They even went so far as to design ideal suburban communities, which encouraged wide (dangerous) streets, single family homes, and cul-de-sacs. What public housing was constructed was confined to the city, ensuring a suburban-urban dichotomy of housing typology polarity.
As federally insured money poured in for the construction of new suburbs, subsidized highways ferried private cars to sprawling subdivisions with strict minimum lot sizes, whose codes were copy and pasted from one town to the next, that segregated along use, intensity, class, and race. The effect was a stretching out of single family homes from sea to shining sea. What non-residential uses did exist were pushed to the side of arterial roads, pit stops between the office and the home, where they remain today. Long Island’s Levittown is the regrettable case study in this form of post-war development.
While there’s always been a rural — urban divide, the suburban — urban divide was supercharged by explosive growth and subsidization, and codified into law. The dichotomy has been mythologized on side of American culture, villainized on the other, and become orthodoxy. It’s only in the last few decades in trying to rectify some of the ills of the past that single family homes have ceded ground to different ways of living.
But increasingly, those different ways of living are just one way of living — large institutionally backed structures comprised of several hundred units. This has further squeezed out the amount of smaller multi-family properties being built. Without the ability to incrementally add homes to single family zoned areas, and unable to compete with the economies of scale of large development firms, buildings with between 2 and 20 units have become rarer. We’ve been pushed to extremes of polarity, with the middle housing stock exiting entirely in many places. This is the Missing Middle.
The kidnapping of the Missing Middle was made possible by the unholy forces of Euclidean Zoning, the Interstate Highway System, and the FHA working together, grinding to become immutable facets of our society. Through this most ignoble triumvirate, we functionally zoned out the middle, and created a perfectly polarized built environment. We have scores of single family homes, monoliths of new apartment buildings, and very little in between.
Why polarization is bad in our built environment
You might not be convinced that this divergence in housing composition is bad, or that there’s anything particularly wrong with our current development patterns. Besides for traffic, life is pretty good. Right? Not quite.
Our current system effectively legislates for environmental degradation, segregation by race and by class, unaffordability, limited economic mobility, political polarization, negative health & community outcomes, and a host of others we won’t be able to break down. To briefly touch on a few of these points (and spare your time!), the problems with polarization, bulleted.
- Environmental degradation: The damage of sprawling development patterns are well known: loss of natural & protected lands, reduced biodiversity, increased temperatures through the urban heat island effect, decreased air and water quality, and strained resources. Residents of single-family sprawl have a disproportionately high emissions per capita of compared to other housing types. While over-intensification can have adverse impacts, there are mitigants, and less potential damage, as we have more control over concentrated land areas. The answer lies somewhere in the middle, though closer to intensification.
- Segregation by race and by class: The legacy of the earliest suburbs and housing projects is of strict racial segregation. It remained so for decades as an unquestioned vestige. Distressingly, this form of segregation remains a problem, and has gotten worse in recent years. To add to this, our neighborhoods are becoming more homogenized along class lines. Part of this is due to land use economics. It’s not possible (without prohibitively heavy subsidization) to deliver truly affordable units in the most expensive neighborhoods. In dense urban areas, the costs of construction for large buildings necessitate a certain base level return. In suburban areas, the scarcity of legal land to develop more gentle density leads to wealthier families bidding up the limited supply. In new residential subdivisions, tract homes offered at the same price set a high floor for who can access those communities. If every every home in a community starts at $750,000, there’s necessarily a restriction on who can live there.
- Many of the new affordable developments are exclusively affordable. This is not good. Whether stacking homes in towers, or in communities with more human-scaled design (like Hope VI), we’re still segregating by class. The goal shouldn’t be 100% affordability in most places (or 100% market rate, either) as it concentrates similar economic groups and stifles mobilization (more on that below). Beyond the building level, maps of New York City’s public housing (bottom left) and newly constructed affordable homes (in dark blue, bottom right), show the geographic clustering of class, primarily in Central & Eastern Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan, and the South Bronx. This is not what success looks like.
- Unaffordability: Artificially imposed scarcity in high demand areas leads to unaffordable housing outcomes. This polarity is present in all human realms (rural, suburban, urban), but manifests itself in different ways. In rural areas, stagnant incomes haven’t kept up with costs of living and, ironically, the introduction of small employers puts strains on the pricing of aging housing stock through increased competition and limited new supply. In the suburbs, minimum lot sizes and single family zoning regulations colonize land and prohibit the introduction of new homes that could reduce pricing pressure. It’s likewise subject to intense competition. In dense urban areas, as discussed, the high costs of land and construction — exaggerated by zoning — necessitate more expensive homes.
- In total, a little less than half of all renters are burdened by housing costs, and 25% are severely burdened — translating to 11 million people spending more than half of their income towards housing. With easing zoning codes, and allowing for more small-to-medium sized buildings to be constructed, the ubiquity of unaffordability across both poles can be reigned in, by pulling everything back to the middle (see Montreal below).
- Limited economic mobilization: One of the most persistent impacts of unaffordability and spatial segregation (by class & race) is limited economic opportunity. Of course if you’re paying a ton of money towards housing, it’s very difficult to save, invest, and mobilize your way upwards. This is a problem that spans generations, and disproportionately impacts already marginalized groups.
- As profiled in Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck In Place, and paraphrased in Richard Rothstein’s Modern Segregation (both of which come highly recommend, bordering on mandatory reading) “67 percent of African American families hailing from the poorest quarter of neighborhoods a generation ago continue to live in such neighborhoods today.” Sharkey picks up where Rothstein’s paraphrasing drops off, “living in poor neighborhoods over two consecutive generations reduces children’s cognitive skills by roughly eight or nine points … roughly equivalent to missing two to four years of schooling.” This is a staggering deprivation of human talent and oppression of mobility. Our society privileges those who are well off, imperils those who are impoverished by trapping them in place, and squeezes those in the middle towards marginalization. Economic and built environment polarity are policy choices. We keep making the wrong ones.
- Political Polarity: When we don’t get to interact with people who don’t think or look like us, we can’t appreciate that those people are pretty much the same as we are. That they go to the grocery store on Sundays, get haircuts at the local barber, play with their dogs or kids in the same parks we do, and are in their own ways integral parts of the community. That not only are they not so bad, but they’re pretty nice! When we don’t do this, a fear of those others arises. I don’t need to spell out the historical danger of this. Our built form enables, and indeed encourages, self selection into discrete groups when there’s not enough room or housing type variation for various groups of people to live next to one another. This is the fundamental promise of modern cities, and it’s been corrupted. They should be the great levelers where one can rub shoulders with a multi-millionaire from one part of the world on one side, and someone hustling for their next pay check from the other corner of the world on the other side. When we lose this, we lose our common humanity, and revert to our tribal instincts. This is made all the worse when certain groups are steered into certain places, a practice still ongoing today.
- While there’s many beautiful things about celebrating one’s own community spatially, it should be a fluid part of a broader, dynamic city, not cloistered in a far flung suburb where the seeds of otherization can be sowed. When we break off into factions, we’re all lesser for it. Hardening demographic lines are forcing disparate communities into political polarization, which in turn is leading to extremes in policy & ideology. When we don’t get the chance to meet, and know, a neighbor who might be living in circumstances different than we are, we’re indifferent to their plight, or actively rail against it (see, the misconceptions of Welfare or immigration). Legislation crafted in this context hardens artificial lines.
- Health & Community Outcomes. When we’re spread out in single family homes, or squeezed into large multi-family buildings along busy roads, we’re not attaining optimal health or community outcomes. In single family zoned suburbs, it’s nearly impossible to walk anywhere (driving is prioritized to dangerous ends), and there’s very little sense of place. What community does exist is stretched thin, necessarily limited, and in many respects exclusive. It also deprives us of special experiences, and the certain kind of magic that a mixed-use, organically meandering place provides. Where everything is meticulously planned, there’s no possibility of deviation from the vapid homogeneity. For those larger multi-family buildings, there’s an equal anonymity to sprawling areas. While these can be more walkable places, they lack the beauty and dynamism of more fine grained neighborhoods. Zoning constraints force them to locate along highways, arterial roads, or near industry, which leads to poorer air quality, anxiety-inducing noise pollution, and a host of other negative health outcomes. Our two poles are uniquely bad, and require rethinking.
All of these effects of polarization stem from policy choices. All of them. Whether through active choices, acquiescence to lobbying (at the corporate and homeowner level), or a general ignorance, these determinants are being propelled by our public officials and their policy decisions, which enables perverse market-based outcomes to grow from this troubled foundation.
Fixing the polarity
So, bad government policy, zoning, infrastructure, and financing (and subsequent lobbying & ossification), are the predominant factors that have gotten us in this hole. If our current state is the result of a series of actions and policy, is it not possible to take a new series of actions within a new regulatory framework? After all, it’s not as though unaffordability and negative health outcomes are spontaneously occurring in our world, or facts of the universe.
It may be daunting to seek to revert a century of bad decisions, especially as they’ve become cemented in our world. When an expected return drops by 50% (the quality of our built environment), one must have a 100% gain to get back to where they started, to say nothing of where they want to go. But it’s not impossible. It won’t happen over night, but we have to get back on track as soon as we can, one step at a time. If we make incremental progress weekly, after a generation of compounding, meaningful changes will be visible.
Make places more affordable & diverse by reforming zoning: The Foundation
The first step towards fixing our polarities is to legalize the middle, and take away the systems that stretch us outward. In other words, it’s time to fix zoning. The highly technocratic nature of most codes doesn’t make sense. Why is a bike shop more compatible with RM 1–7 zoning or CMX — 3, but not RS-1–5? Why exactly is a building in one zone not able occupy more than 40% of a lot, but more than 80% in the zone across the street? It’s senseless, delivered by minds who use specious pseudo-intellectualism as a justification for completely arbitrary ends. Those codes that do make sense theoretically — as the rationale behind SFZ theoretically makes sense — have been wielded to the destruction of our places. We have to observe how people would like to live, married with what’s best for our societies, and zone according to those findings. Not abstract notions conjured by those who delivered and maintain the legacy of the worst land use pattern the world has ever known.
The most practical route towards mending this embodied polarity is to legalize the Missing Middle. Coined by architect & planner Daniel Parolek in 2010, the Missing Middle refers to a range of smaller multi-family buildings, from duplexes to 3–4 story buildings, of various vernacular styles. They’re the middle ground between single family homes and larger apartment buildings, that have functionally been “missing” in our cities. In older, fine-grained neighborhoods with strong senses of place and community, Missing Middle buildings are usually the prevailing typology. They’re the fabric that allows for diversity and affordability, at a gentle, human scale. It brings people together — while not forcing them on top of one another — to help see others less as threats, and more as potential friends.
Take Montreal, for example. Upwards of 50% of the city’s housing stock could be classified as Missing Middle — the highest proportion in Canada. It also has among the lowest proportion of detached single family homes in the country. Strong tenant protections and high rates of building (79 units per 10,000 residents in the metropolitan area, markedly higher than the city of San Francisco’s 59, or building hotspots like Houston’s 57, though less than Seattle, 109, and Austin, 140) have stabilized the city. It’s led to less polarization and inequality compared to peer cities, though of course there’s more work to be done. Montreal (4.1M metro population, $1,500 1BR, $1,975 2BR in city) is more affordable than comparable major metropolitan areas in North America like San Francisco (4.75M metro population, $2,900 1BR, $3,900 2BR in city) and Seattle (4.0M metro population, $1,850 1BR, $2,500 2BR in city). It’s not a surprise that geographically constrained metros with strict single family zoning are more expensive. Okay, exhale. The data dump is over, but it’s important to contextualize our problems to culturally similar places of similar sizes, albeit with lower GDPs. Though I couldn’t find city-level numbers for Montreal, I’d expect we would see even more robust evidence to support the Missing Middle thesis.
Not only is the Missing Middle a more affordable development pattern, it’s more environmentally friendly as well. It’s healthier for people as it’s easier to do more of one’s daily activities while walking or biking. During the same period when the US was making this kind of housing illegal, and forcing its people into destructive car dependency, Montreal built most of its Missing Middle housing. The divergence in our fates is stark, and deeply disturbing. Doubtless, Montreal has more work to do, and it’s not immune to the challenges we face. But it’s a more resilient, and less polarized place because of the policy decisions it’s made. It was even named the happiest city in North America. I don’t how to empirically measure that, but I’ll guess its due in part to the convivial, neighborly, and affordable nature that allows people to live as they please, less confined from the burdens of struggling to make ends meet. We would do well to emulate our neighbors to the north.
Make communities healthier & more sustainable by reforming infrastructure: The Structure
Trillions of dollars have been spent over the last century building up the infrastructure of polarity. Though mentioned most frequently, The Interstate Highway System (and its continued expansion) is just the tip of the iceberg. The destruction of our cities via urban renewal, our countryside by sprawl, and all of the areas in between by inefficient land use, have bankrupted us socially, economically, environmentally, and by just about any other metric one could think of measuring by.
It’s daunting to stare down the face of trillions of dollars of interventions needed, but our bill has come due, and the data is clear. Areas that don’t carry their fair share of regional obligations (homes, jobs, community facilities, etc.), or cost more to maintain than they generate in tax revenue, must stop being subsidized immediately. This sows the seeds of discontent and sends a message that it’s okay to shirk one’s communal responsibilities, and that others can pay for your own bills. Bridging our gaps require everyone to carry their fair share, and for struggling communities to be helped out by those more “prosperous”, not the other way around. This is fundamentally unjust. It sows the seeds of discontent, and not undeservedly so .Unjust subsidies to our most inefficient places must end.
We can accomplish this by withholding any money allocated towards polarizing highway expansion. It threatens to further embroil our climate crisis and exaggerate the polarities it mandates. Besides, we have more than enough maintenance needs to take care of already, which cannot all be funded. Because of this, we have to think tactically about shrinking the system to not only save costs, but generate positive returns where possible. Infrastructure isn’t just what we put up, but what we choose to bring down. This requires a shift in thinking.
In its annual Freeways Without Futures report, The Congress for New Urbanism highlighted 15 urban highways that can be removed to reconnect neighborhoods destroyed by highway construction. Through the subsidization of new Missing Middle infill development and community programs, land reclaimed from bad infrastructure can be turned into strong assets for cities. No longer will these be places to avoid, or the zones the least fortunate are relegated to. Freed from dividing lines, air pollution, and forces that restrict opportunity, these neighborhoods can flower into beautiful futures
We must invest in the types of places that can financially support themselves, cultivate communities, and bring people together, not divide them. This is the structure of building back the middle.
Allow Missing Middle to be built by financing its development: Putting It All Together
A foundation and structure in plan are only as good as the financing that enables them to be realized. Remember, everything costs money to construct, and buildings & infrastructure cost a lot of money. As banks and other private lenders are strict gatekeepers, it’s critical that they’re provided comfort to extend loans for the types of places we want to live in, and encouraged to underwrite the investments that make these places viable.
Because the government doesn’t have a robust suite of products designed to insure small Missing Middle/mixed-use development, there’s very little lender appetite to extend loans for these properties. This is true even if the returns of a project are excellent. As architect/developer Cary Westerbeck has profiled, the process of getting a loan for a Missing Middle property is excruciatingly difficult. It’s more complex to finance just about anything than single family homes on one end of the spectrum, and there isn’t as much juice to squeeze as in a larger apartment building, at the other. This forces developers to take on private capital at higher rates, which results in more expensive rent passed on to tenants. Along with other financing provisions, like having to provide a certain amount of parking, the antiquated thinking of lenders make the costs of financing a Missing Middle development near prohibitive.
Just as the government created the FHA and insured loans for the development of millions of single family homes, it now must create programs to insure the development of millions of units of Missing Middle Housing. This is as critical a matter of national interest as it was in the Post-War period, but with the added impetuses of climate change, broken community through bad land use, the (long-overdue) desire to address systemic inequality, and the desperate need to patch our fractured society. We’re more than 5 million units short of housing across the country, a number that’s only increasing. This isn’t a problem isolated to expensive coastal megacities, but every county in America. It’s time for the FHA, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae to step up. We can’t solve our housing crises until we have the financing to do so.
Do I believe the world will magically improve by re-legalizing the Missing Middle and drastically overhauling our zoning codes within a structure that enables their success? Yeah. I do. Maybe not overnight, but sooner than most would think. This might be overly optimistic, but we can’t afford not to be. With so much fatalism and negativity driving our national discourse, and the continuing deleterious impacts of failed policy compounding daily, we have to be optimistic in thinking critically through how we can tangibly improve the world around us. The status quo isn’t acceptable.
On this note, it’s important to make these interventions by right. State level pre-emption (as California has done with ADU laws) is essential to ensuring we weed out the self selection and artificial polarities erected by communities who have shirked their responsibilities, get full buy in from lenders, and actually provide places for people to live, work, and come together. It’s not about making single family zoning illegal, or putting massive structures on every block. This is base-level fear mongering whose progenitors should be embarrassed by their failure of their fellow human beings. This framework is about creating the types of places we used to build by default. The ones that are the most beloved places today. Vested interests have insured that if these actions are subject to review, the process can become co-opted and dissolve into a byzantine regulatory state that grinds to paralysis, making everyone (except for those interests), worse off.
Will restoring the Missing Middle cure all of our ills? Of course not. I’m not naive. Problems existed with the outcomes generated by our built form before the last century, and they’ll exist in perpetuity. Polarization is endemic to humans. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to reconcile these inherent tensions. I have to believe there’s a better state than the one we’re currently in. For a nation with the supposed pedigree such as ours to devolve as we have in so many meaningful areas (beyond mere social media discourse), is deeply saddening, and immensely frustrating.
This is just one proposed solution of dozens needed to change our current (downward) trajectory, but a firm foundation to build off of. The Missing Middle is an embodied belief in bringing people together. Reducing inequalities and making our places more affordable. Providing space for people of all walks of life, beliefs, colors, and means to rub shoulders with one another, and realize others aren’t so bad as social media makes them out to be. The Missing Middle is about re-instituting a middle ground for us find when the poles are seeking to pull us ever outwards. It’s about creating and cementing communities. Celebrating that which makes us different, and embracing that which brings us together.
Restore the middle, or risk losing it forever.
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Thanks for reading!