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Maryland’s Disappearing Act: Missing Middle Housing

Maryland’s Disappearing Act: Missing Middle Housing 

By Lisa May 

Who doesn’t love a magic trick? Pulling a rabbit out of a hat ... picking a card out of the deck … making the rubber ball vanish into thin air. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to Maryland’s “missing middle” housing, there’s no mystery as to why it disappeared nor any magic to make it reappear before our eyes.  

What is “Missing Middle” Anyway?

It’s a common misconception that “missing middle” refers to a group of homebuyers who are not finding the housing options they need in today’s market. However, this term describes the housing itself, along with its form and scale.  

Missing middle housing is compatible in scale with existing single-family homes but provides more diversity in home sizes and price points for area residents than those existing homes. It includes multifamily housing of four to eight units, smaller-scale homes that are clustered around a common courtyard, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and duplexes and triplexes.  

It is housing that is needed to serve populations that are experiencing housing shortages and affordability challenges in Maryland: low- and moderate-income workers, seniors, and young professionals. It also serves the desires of those groups to live in walkable neighborhoods close to local amenities.  

Why Do We Consider It Missing?

At its simplest, something becomes missing when it existed in the past but does not in the present. That’s exactly where we find ourselves with this type of housing.  

Up to and including the 1940s, multiplex dwellings, garage apartments and the like were common features of residential neighborhoods. They also created a critical mass of population density to support local retail and emerging public transit options. 

What changed? Several factors in the late 1940s and early 1950s altered the trajectory of missing middle housing. Chief among them was the widespread adoption of local zoning codes.  

We have previously highlighted the history of zoning in this magazine, and how it was designed to physically separate different land uses from one another. It also served to separate the types of people who tended to populate those uses from one another. 

Multi-family housing for those of lower incomes was deemed to be in a different category from larger homes on larger lots. Thanks to the availability and relative affordability of autos for the middle and upper classes, those larger homes could be located in the suburbs, farther away from public transportation options and without the need for walkable amenities. 

The separation of uses had a direct impact on missing middle housing production. Small-scale multifamily dwellings, including duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes, once comprised over 7% of our housing stock. Over the years, as new construction has favored other building types, it has fallen to just over 1% of our total housing stock. 

How Can We “Find” It Again?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as starting to build these housing types once again.  Many of them cannot be built without reforms to the zoning practices instituted 70 years ago, and the rest tend to fall victim to a public resistance to change. 

Even though scholars began promoting missing middle housing options in the early 2000s, they’re just now catching on at the state and local levels.  

States like California, Maine, and Oregon have instituted broad zoning reforms to allow residential lots to hold up to four units and have actively promoted the creation of ADUs on existing properties. In Maryland, however, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface.  

For the past two years, Maryland REALTORS® has introduced legislation on ADUs with the hopes that we will eventually join the ranks of those states with a statewide standard. Despite those efforts, we are still at least a year away from making recommendations to counties and cities, who have opposed more immediate action.  

Some of our localities are moving forward on their own, loosening single-family zoning regulations to allow more missing middle options. This includes the Abundant Housing Act in Baltimore, which would remove many restrictions of the conversion of single-family lots into low-density multi-family units – the very definition of missing middle housing. Similarly, Montgomery County’s Thrive 2050 comprehensive plan envisions the creation of cottages, duplexes and quadplexes through future ordinances and zoning text amendments. 

Despite the merits of these approaches, there is still plenty of opposition to change from within local governments and existing residents alike. Some of that opposition comes from “Not in My Backyard” sentiment, and some comes from more legitimate concerns over infrastructure needs. Neither, however, should be an excuse to shut down or abdicate responsibility for replacing the housing that our rules and regulations have taken away. 

Bringing back missing middle housing will involve more sausage-making than magic wand waving, but there’s no trick in how we should proceed.  


Lisa May is the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for Maryland REALTORS®

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