Opinion: ‘Missing Middle’ housing: Neither affordable nor restitution, but still a good idea to explore

Berkeley voters adopted a neighborhood preservation ordinance in 1973 in reaction to the destruction of “urban renewal.” Community groups must be involved in discussing upzoning in residential neighborhoods.

On April 23, the City Council will likely move forward a report on “Missing Middle” housing, to study the concept of allowing low-rise multiplex units in areas currently zoned for a primary residence plus Accessory Dwelling Unit (R1) or for only two or three units (R1A and R2). Berkeley already has a large number of attractive bungalow courts, backyard cottages, townhouses and similar building types threaded through residential areas. They provide high quality housing that allows more people and families to enjoy neighborhoods throughout Berkeley.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, many family homes were torn down in the name of “urban renewal,” which was decimating low income and in particular African American communities nationwide. They were replaced with large, often poorly designed and constructed buildings slotted from front to back on narrow parcels. Not surprisingly, there was a strong reaction to these jarring structures, which cut through both the physical and social fabric of long-established neighborhoods.

“Downzoning” Berkeley’s neighborhoods to protect communities from displacement was a key goal for the “liberal/black/progressive/unified Democratic Party” coalition that won Berkeley’s first-ever Democratic majority in 1961. According to BERKELEY IN THE 70s, A History of Progressive Electoral Politics, by David Mundstock, “In April 1961, the Democratic Caucus went after the Republicans again, needing to win three seats for a majority. It got them, in the process electing Berkeley’s first black Councilmember [. . .]. The new majority quickly began implementing its program including downzoning to preserve neighborhoods in west Berkeley, and other parts of the flatlands, including areas south of the University”

The culmination of efforts to protect lower-income neighborhoods came in 1973 when Berkeley overwhelmingly passed a citizen’s initiative called the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance (NPO).  According to The Berkeley Revolution: A digital archive of one city’s transformation in the late-1960s & 1970 – Citizens vs. Developers, “The NPO was conceived as a response to “urban renewal”—the development policies, built upon partnerships between city governments and private developers, which often involved the razing of older neighborhoods and which critics attacked for their displacement of longtime residents and for their homogenizing of the urban landscape.” Ken Hughes, one of the authors of the NPO, noted that the NPO was “a triumph of the people from ‘non-hills Berkeley’ who had helped to draft it, and were pushing back against . . . developers and its most affluent residents.”

The NPO must be understood in historical context; it was at the heart of a “people’s revolution,” not an elitist effort to create affluent and exclusionary enclaves. But in the struggle to put an end to displacement of low and middle-income communities, activists may have retreated too far. Over the ensuing decades, housing production did not keep pace with demand, and it was impossible to imagine the demographic pressures Berkeley would be facing in the 21st Century.

Unlike the large buildings that threatened to overwhelm neighborhoods 50+ years ago, “Missing Middle” housing is specifically intended to meld into neighborhoods with a traditional feel, maintaining similar setbacks and patterning of adjacent homes. I appreciate the vision of Dan Parolek, who coined the term “Missing Middle.” In a 2017 Op Ed, he championed this type of housing as a means to reinforce “a high quality built environment” and urged building forms that achieve “better design solutions that deliver a more compatible form” for our neighborhoods.

At the same time, it is important is to acknowledge that consideration of new density standards in areas where multi-family housing has long been limited – by voter initiative and successive General Plans – would be a big change. Our best opportunity to move this idea forward is through meaningful community consultation. Luckily, the first Citizen Participation Element of our General Plan (CP-1) states that “[g]eneral plans and amendments must originate and proceed with citizens’ groups continuously central to the process.”  For this reason, and to expedite the required in-depth conversation, I co-authored a referral to the City Manager to begin the process of updating the General Plan, which passed unanimously on March 26.

In addition, as we consider this discussion, we should clarify who “Missing Middle” housing might serve, and which of Berkeley’s many housing challenges it might solve.


The term “Missing Middle” was coined in reference to housing types that were common before 1940 (of which Berkeley has many) but have been “missing” in new housing production since that time and to mid-sized/“middle” building types; not housing affordable to “middle income” individuals. The Missing Middle item before Council delves at length into the housing needs of the homeless and low- and middle-income households. It is important to clarify that new Missing Middle housing will not yield housing accessible to these groups unless specifically reserved at below-market rates.

According to the real estate website Trulia, a median 1-bedroom home in Berkeley currently sells for $650,000 and rents at $2,000 per month; median 2-bedrooms cost $1 million and rent for $3,500. Homeless people cannot afford this housing, and many require supportive services on site. Only a subsidized housing program will address their needs. And while significant added housing supply can help reduce pressure to displace low-income residents, market rents and prices won’t be coming down to anything resembling housing affordable at 30%, 50%, 80% or even 120% of Area Median Income (AMI) in the foreseeable future.

The people of Berkeley generously passed Measures O and P last November, which provide approximately $200 million to create and preserve housing for homeless and low- and moderate-income individuals. Maximizing this opportunity for truly affordable housing should be our first priority – and guarding against the kind of displacement the NPO was enacted to end. With limited staff and planning commission capacity, we must focus on delivering what a supermajority of Berkeley voters just endorsed: stop displacement, build and preserve affordable housing, and rehouse the homeless.

The Missing Middle report also includes a lengthy description of racist covenants and redlining by financial institutions to enforce racial and economic segregation in Berkeley. The implication is that Missing Middle housing will be a vehicle to address these past wrongs. A letter from Prof. Karen Chappel doubles down on these hopeful outcomes, stating that “zoning reform has the potential to […] become a form of restorative or even transformative justice,” and might somehow atone for Berkeley’s “past racist and exclusionary practices.” I am concerned that positing Missing Middle housing as a means to redress the deep harms inflicted by our racist past will divert attention from real and necessary reparations. Nothing about Missing Middle housing will direct benefits specifically to those who were harmed by racist policies.

Time is overdue for us to hold corporations and government accountable for the generational poverty and suffering they have created, profited from or facilitated – up to and including the recent subprime mortgage crisis. These institutions must quantify the damage and ante-up both with targeted programs and cash payments. While the City Council in 2005 called upon financial institutions to disclose financial ties to slavery, it does not appear that we have expressed support for HR 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.  We should do so.

The Missing Middle initiative must not be confused with a program to solve the housing needs of the homeless or of low- or moderate-income families, or to redress racial and economic harms. But it is still an idea Berkeley should consider. Demand is high for market-rate housing, especially in family-oriented neighborhoods. I look forward to an honest, thoughtful and consultative exploration of the possibility of bringing well-designed, contextual units into our residential neighborhoods – without displacement – and inviting more people and families to share the benefits and pleasures of living in Berkeley.

Sophie Hahn is the City Councilwoman from District 5.