Missing Middle Housing Could Give Our Children What My Grandpa Had

Opinion: SB 195 Could Give Our Children What My Grandpa Had

Missing Middle Housing Could Give Our Children What My Grandpa Had

 This past fall, my grandpa was living out his final days in a home built by his own hands—strong and gnarled hands from a lifetime of woodworking.

At the same time as he was daydreaming of doing handsprings in a city not made by human hands, whose builder and maker is God, I was retreading his steps in a German city he once lived in. I imagined what sort of stories I could tell him as I walked the Coburg Veste Park where I envisioned the fabled handsprings of his youth. 

I walked the carless streets of Coburg’s old city. Streams of schoolchildren walked themselves home and bought bratwursts in the market square while they walked. My grandpa was their age in 1947 at the time his family moved here, far from their home in a Ukrainian village. 

My grandpa lived in an apartment on the 4th and 5th story of a row house, above a gingerbread shop and rented from the owners on the 2nd and 3rd floors. I walked there and saw it for myself. I saw “GeorgDorn Lebkücherei” above the window storefront on the first floor. I saw a sprightly old man trot out the front door on his way to something important.

This row house would be either illegal to build in Virginia or it wouldn’t have had a 4th and 5th story. This is because a critical feature that allows it to fit within its urban block as a medium-sized apartment building is that it has a single staircase from the street.

In Virginia, it might need to be half its height with half as many units. With half as many tenants on the same land cost, it might not have been as affordable. Or it might need to be a building the size of a city block to justify multiple staircases, solving the economies of scale issue but requiring much more land to do so.

Without row houses like this in Virginia, we don’t get things like independent schoolchildren, easy walks from the train station and the smell of gingerbread downstairs.

Those are all very quaint but what is important to me is that we don’t get affordable housing for young families. We don’t get people with large enough row houses to rent out the top floors. We don’t have as many affordable options for fathers like my great-grandpa, one-armed and displaced by the Bolsheviks and WWII, looking for a stepping stone to America before East Germany closed to the West. We don’t get dense housing driving down the cost of a basic human need.

On my way out of town, I snapped photos of rental properties in a realtor window. My jaw dropped after computing currency conversions. It was a lot less than the average rent in Richmond, Virginia. There was a 900 sq. ft. apartment for $720/month. Apartments.com estimates the same sized apartment in Richmond would be around double that at $1,456/month.

The housing affordability conversation in Virginia tends to focus on the increasing unaffordability of land-intensive single-family homes, even in cities with finite land. With that focus comes tax dollars spent on homeownership programs. But if these programs don’t encourage lower cost per unit or discourage sprawl away from centrally located jobs or amenities, we could end up with a more costly path to solving the housing crisis.

On the other hand, what costs much less is to walk back some of these older regulations that stand in the way of a free market solution to the housing crisis. Getting out of the way of housing supply allows it to reach equilibrium with demand.

 That’s what a single stair reform bill like HB 368/SB 195 aims to do. If passed, it could allow for buildings up to six stories to be built with a single staircase. This gives developers more options when building medium-sized apartments and row houses that reinforce denser urban fabric. With less square footage required for the additional staircase and hallway connections between front and back staircases, it gives residents more livable space on the same parcel of land. 

It doesn’t by itself build the quaint, surprisingly affordable city life of Coburg, Germany. But, combined with purposeful pursuit of increasing housing supply through density, it could allow for apartments, like the one my grandpa lived, to serve a new generation of young families.

Christian Schick

Co-lead, Strong Towns RVA

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