The ‘missing middle’

Joshua Zinder//March 22, 2021

The ‘missing middle’

How architects are tackling New Jersey's housing gap

Joshua Zinder//March 22, 2021

Facing steep challenges, like a global pandemic, has a way of clarifying critical issues and asserting priorities. A perfect example is the unmet need for better housing options for New Jersey residents.

The housing gap – what many call “missing middle housing” – is leaving people out in the cold, especially those in search of affordable apartments in walkable neighborhoods near town centers. This shortage of suitable alternatives to detached single-family homes on one hand, typically priced out of reach for entry-level buyers and renters, and sprawling mid-rise apartment complexes lacking community, character, and easy access to town centers on the other, can create a drag on a municipality’s economic growth, diversity, vitality, and appeal.

Even before the pandemic, a report from HUD showed a slight drop-off in 2017 from the previous year for multifamily permits in New Jersey, and a dramatic decrease in residential construction in and around Trenton, from 120 units in the prior year to a scant 20.

Meanwhile, home sales statewide climbed, representing increasing demand and associated rising costs. The problem hasn’t abated, and COVID-19 has only thrown into sharper relief the need for more affordable options in walkable neighborhoods.

With no statewide plan or enforcement, municipalities are left to fend for themselves to meet benchmarks for growth as measured in new units. Many residents in target neighborhoods balk at the mention of “affordable” or “mixed-income” development plans. They imagine mid-rise or high-rise complexes featuring subsidized housing changing their serene streets forever. The reality is that those in need of affordable housing options are working people: teachers, nurses, first responders, even aspiring restaurateurs and entrepreneurs – in other words, the exact kinds of people one needs for a healthy and thriving community.

Architects in New Jersey are striving to increase the availability of affordable residences with creative, innovative approaches that reflect each town’s culture and character. Designs and plans for these solutions are the product of bringing together developers, city planners, government officials, neighborhood associations, grassroots-level stakeholders, and design professionals. These joint efforts are helping meet the needs of municipalities facing growth and demographic shifts.

This year the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Architects will strive to lead in the effort to meet this need, partnering with like-minded professional organizations and encouraging our members to become active in the search for missing-middle housing solutions. Already we have seen significant progress – which is no surprise, since our members are committed to making their communities and those of their clients stronger and more sustainable while highlighting what makes each place special.

Some of the solutions we’ve seen involve adaptive reuse of historic buildings, adding additional floors on commercial properties to create small mixed-use complexes, or renovating older residential units in the mixed-use properties in town centers. Other schemes have featured architects and developers working with zoning and planning boards to add multiple dwellings set back on existing multifamily lots. Some major development in the works will create pedestrian-permeable campuses with residential-scale buildings of various heights and styles and publicly accessible outdoor amenities.

Meanwhile, what is needed to assist and speed these efforts are ways to streamline the approval processes. Archaic zoning practices that place onerous requirements for multiple variances only delay the inevitable. Architects and others are already advocating for responsive and nimble alternatives to allow development to move rapidly and to everyone’s advantage.

All New Jerseyans want their towns and cities to grow and flourish, to become more beautiful and more diverse. Filling the missing middle is essential to achieving that goal. The challenge ahead is to grow our state’s affordable housing stock in existing, walkable, residential neighborhoods. With enthusiasm and clarity, architects across our state are ready to partner with stakeholders to move forward.

Joshua Zinder is managing partner of design firm JZA+D in Princeton and 2021 President of the American Institute of Architects New Jersey Chapter