Opinion: We can design our way out of Berkeley’s housing crisis with ‘missing middle’ buildings

A Berkeley architect argues that Berkeley should build more small-scale, multi-unit buildings such as duplexes, bungalow courts, fourplexes, and small mansion apartments.

Berkeley’s housing problems have gone national recently, as The New York Times’ Conor Dougherty highlighted in a thought-provoking article, ”The Great American Single-Family Home Problem.” Dougherty examines the conflicting interests and regulations that threatened to halt the development of one lot on Haskell Street, and shows how those conflicting forces are contributing to the affordable housing crisis we are seeing in our state – and across the country.

As an architect and urban designer based in Berkeley for the past 20 years, I agree that California municipalities have an urgent need to deliver more housing. That said, just delivering more housing is not enough. We need to think about how this housing reinforces a high quality built environment and how to provide a range of housing for all segments of the market, including moderate and low-income households. More small-scale, multi-unit buildings such as duplexes, bungalow courts, fourplexes, and small mansion apartments, or what I call “Missing Middle Housing,” should be a key focus of that housing.

Unfortunately, the design proposed for the Haskell Street site in Berkeley does not deliver on reinforcing a high quality built environment or affordability and, as the NYT article makes clear, does not deliver on any level of affordability. There are better design solutions that deliver a more compatible form, that have more and a broader range of housing units, and that can be more effective at building local support for this and similar infill projects.

For example, the 50’ x 150’ lot at 310 Haskell Street is big enough to accommodate a traditional fourplex, with two units down and two units above in a building that is the scale of a house (see image attached from our Missing Middle research). The units would typically be between 750-900 square feet each. An important characteristic of this housing type is that they do not go deeper onto the lot than a traditional house, thus eliminating the concern about privacy and shading and providing high-quality outdoor living spaces. These fourplex housing types exist all over Berkeley and are often successfully integrated onto blocks with single-family homes.

So how do we get there? Berkeley and most cities across the country need to sharpen their pencils on their outdated zoning codes, first to remove barriers for better solutions and secondly, to create a set of regulations that ensure that inappropriate design solutions like the one proposed for Haskell Street or even worse are not allowed on these sites. Lower densities do not equal better design solutions and higher densities do not need to mean larger or more buildings. This is a delicate balance that few zoning codes achieve and few code writers fully understand.

We also need to change the way we communicate about housing needs in our communities. If we are using George Lakoff’s rules for effective communication we would never go into a housing conversation with a community and use terms like “increasing density, adding multi-family, or upzoning a neighborhood.” I can think of few neighborhoods that would feel good about saying yes to any of those options if they were framed in that way, but which can mostly get on board with thinking about aging within a neighborhood, or ensuring their kids or grandkids can afford to move back to the city they grew up in. Beginning this conversation by simply showing photographic and/or local existing documented examples of good Missing Middle housing types often disarms this conversation and leads to more fruitful results.

Typical fourplex found in Berkeley on a 50’ wide lot. Photo: Missing Middle Housing
A rendering of a fourplex on a lot 50X155 by Missing Middle Housing

Berkeley’s challenges related to housing are not going to go away anytime soon. We need to thoughtfully remove barriers to enable a broad range of solutions like the fourplex that have been a core part of choices provided in our communities already and learn how to effectively build consensus and support for good design solutions such as Missing Middle housing types.

Daniel Parolek is an architect and urban designer who co-authored the book “Form-Based Codes,” coined the term Missing Middle Housing (www.missingmiddlehousing.com) and speaks and consults nationally on these topics.