Panel promotes collaboration for missing middle housing reform

HOUSING STRATEGIES: Five panelists spoke at A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium March 28 about how increasing middle housing could positively impact a number of different social and environmental issues in Asheville. Photo by Brooke Randle

“I’m here with you tonight, talking about missing middle housing instead of being with my 3 1/2-year-old son,” said Geoffrey Barton, president and CEO of Asheville-based nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities. “And I think that’s an expression of how important this conversation is.”

On March 28, Barton was one of five panelists who discussed how increasing middle housing could positively impact a number of different social and environmental issues in Asheville. The event was held inside A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium.

Myths about density

The forum follows the November release of a more than 150-page report from Opticos Design, a California-based company. The report found that Asheville’s existing zoning ordinances and other regulations encourage the construction of single-family housing over other types of housing, such as townhomes, duplexes and triplexes. 

The report also recommended a number of zoning and policy changes that aim to promote middle housing, such as reducing parking requirements, changing or removing minimum lot size standards and allowing the construction of accessory dwelling units in more areas of the city.

Tonya Jameson, a consultant with the Charlotte-based economic mobility nonprofit Leading on Opportunity, moderated the Thursday evening event. Each of the forum’s five speakers addressed the issue through a unique lens: the historical context of zoning; environmental consequences of single-family housing; housing’s impact on local educators and students; older adults and the desire to age in place; and myths about density and multifamily housing and strategies for change.

Andrew Paul, who teaches history at A-B Tech and is the co-founder of the housing nonprofit Asheville for All, spoke about the impact of former segregation laws on today’s modern zoning ordinances. 

“If you make [multifamily housing] illegal to build in the neighborhoods you want to protect … you can keep poor people out. If you’re segregated by class, you can at least segregate by race somewhat as well,” Paul asserted. “There is no mention of race in the zoning code itself. But I think we can say that this national trend of exclusion, of segregation, created norms and models, and those ideas are certainly with us today.” 

Susan Bean, who serves as the housing and transportation director of regional environmental nonprofit MountainTrue, noted that transportation is the single largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. She suggested that increasing housing density within city centers rather than building out could encourage residents to drive less. She also explained that larger homes require more energy for heating and cooling, which accounts for roughly 50% of all energy use. Multifamily homes are naturally more efficient due to size and shared interior walls.  

Shanna Peele, a special education teacher and president of the Buncombe County Association of Educators, explained the lack of affordable housing perpetuates a cycle of instability for students and their families, which can take a toll on academic performance and emotional well-being. She also noted how teachers and school staff members struggle to afford housing.

“Imagine, for a moment, being a teacher who spends hours each day commuting to and from work because affordable housing is out of reach. Picture the stress and financial strain of trying to make ends meet on a meager salary while grappling with the exorbitant cost of housing,” Peele said. “It’s a tough reality that far too many of our educators face each day.”

Making the case that middle housing not only helps younger people who are seeking affordable options, Rebecca Chaplin, who works for AARP North Carolina Mountain Region, said that older adults often prefer smaller and more affordable homes as they age. She noted that 42% of people 50 or older live within the 28801 ZIP code and that that number is expected to grow. Increasing the availability of housing types, such as accessory dwellings, allows parents and grandparents to reside near family members, which contributes to better health outcomes for both older and younger generations. 

Meanwhile, Barton reflected on the importance of including a wide range of perspectives and expertise when it comes to creating sustainable zoning and housing policies. 

“We’re really excited to be part of this conversation with environmental organizations, educators and AARP just to show that there’s a broad coalition and there’s broad interests … in bringing more housing to our community,” Barton said. “It’s really time that we diversify our housing options in the community, and missing middle housing reforms in our zoning ordinance are a great mechanism to do just that.”

Upcoming meetings

About 50 people attended the event. Once the speakers finished their presentations, they took questions from the audience and offered next steps for the missing middle housing recommendations. 

One commenter asked if additional middle housing would directly increase the number of affordable homes available within the city. While the two types of housing share many of the same goals, speaker Paul maintained that strategies for creating more middle housing are different from a city policy perspective.

 “This is one of the things that’s most confusing. Because when we hear the word affordable, everyone has a different definition of what it means,” Paul explained. “They are two different programs: ones that could work together symbiotically [on] things that we need. But missing middle reform is really about a particular set of policies that [the city] can pose without having to spend any money [on affordable housing subsidies].” 

A presentation on the proposed zoning changes will be made at the Wednesday, April 3, meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission, starting at 5 p.m. Members of Asheville City Council will review phase one of proposed middle housing reform during their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, May 14.


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2 thoughts on “Panel promotes collaboration for missing middle housing reform

  1. indy499

    How much did the California and Charlotte consultants pocket on this gig? I’m sure they recommended further study.

    • luther blissett

      Yeah, I’m not opposed to the city hiring consultants to do specialist work when it doesn’t make sense to have it done in-house, but this is paying for someone to state the obvious. Reduced parking requirements! Adjustments to lot sizing! Incentives for multifamily development! Who’da thunk it? This work has been done over and over again. You can look it all up on the internet. It’s an in-house job. The general principles don’t change just because it’s Asheville.

      It’s part of a pattern where city government lacks the guts to make its own decisions and own them. On zoning and housing, this means facing down the NIMBYs. It means sticking to zoning plans and not granting variances to developers who rightly believe City Council is a pushover. It requires some basic courage and responsibility.

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