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A new study on missing middle housing offers solutions for Asheville’s growing affordable housing crisis

An example of middle housing in a North Asheville neighborhood.
City of Asheville
This North Asheville duplex is an example of middle housing.

A new housing study commissioned by the City of Asheville confirms a truth that many residents have known for some time: the current housing stock is not meeting the needs of the community.

The final version of the 155-page Missing Middle Housing Study, conducted by Opticos Design, Inc and Cascadia Partners was released on Friday. The city commissioned the study in 2022 and paid the consultants $85,000.

“Asheville is experiencing a housing crisis, and we need to review all possible options to keep up with the needs and goals of the community,” Mayor Esther Manheimer told BPR in an email.

The study focuses on Asheville’s lack of missing middle housing, a term which refers to duplexes, multiplexes, town houses, courtyard buildings, and other types of housing that fall in between a single-family residence and large scale apartment complex.

According to the study, Asheville needs to add 7,500 new housing units by 2040 to accommodate a projected 15,000 additional residents in the city limits. The majority of those newcomers will be millennials and baby boomers, who are looking for smaller, affordable, and more walkable places to live.

“The Missing Middle Housing Report, in conjunction with community guidance from our neighborhoods and the project’s Advisory Committee, will help us better understand where the City has opportunities to grow – specifically, how we can develop additional housing that is compatible with existing neighborhoods, especially our neighborhoods that are within walking distance to jobs, services, and schools,” Manheimer wrote.

A multiplex in the Five Points neighborhood.
City of Asheville
A multiplex in the Five Points neighborhood.

Missing middle housing generally thrives in higher-density neighborhoods that are walkable, include bike lanes and offer access to mixed-use areas. This housing is considered ‘missing’ because, in recent times, it’s been spurned in favor of single-family residences. That’s especially the case in Asheville, where two-thirds of all neighborhoods are zoned to only allow single-family homes.

“We’re seeing really two types of housing built in our community,” confirmed Asheville City Councilwoman Sage Turner, who also serves as the chair of Asheville’s Regional Housing Consortium.

“The single family model, like the standalone house, or these gigantic apartment complexes that will have 200 or 300 apartments, and there's a really stark difference… We could be doing more housing types to do better-placed infill that isn't so overwhelming to neighborhoods.”

Middle housing can also help the city avoid the problem of “urban sprawl,” which Turner said can often make a city more difficult and expensive to manage from an infrastructure perspective.

“The city is growing, but the land to build on is not. So we're either going to be a huge sprawling community of individual houses that are very expensive and very large complexes of apartments that are dense and traffic inducing or we're going to figure out this missing middle, where we can have a house with a basement apartment and a garage apartment in the back and four different families living on a site instead of one.”

Based on numbers from the last four years, Asheville is far from the study’s proposed 7,500 units. Between 2018 and 2022, the city approved 1,795 new residential building permits, of which 1,387 were single-family dwellings and 128 were multi-family dwellings.

Middle housing comes in many shapes and sizes.
City of Asheville
Middle housing comes in many shapes and sizes.

Recommendations from the study

The study proposed a suite of solutions and policy recommendations for how Asheville can address its lackluster inventory of middle housing.

The city needs to change its zoning, the study recommended. The study offered 22 suggestions on zoning including the development of a more standardized and streamlined approval process, loosened requirements for ADUs and cottage courts, and reduced parking, setback and footprint requirements.

“Too often, the types and size of new dwellings that the market wants are not allowed by local policy or zoning regulations,” the report said. “Innovative developments that deliver something different than the status quo are then required to go through a complex and uncertain review process. Regulatory change is needed to make new investment predictable and simple, especially when we need these new types to respond to a shifting market.”

Beyond zoning, other core policy recommendations from the study focus on prioritizing walkable neighborhoods and identifying “auto dependent” corridors – such as North Asheville’s Merrimon Ave., West Asheville’s Patton Ave., and the Beverly Hills side of Tunnel Rd. – that could be transformed into walkable centers.

This map identifies the displacement vulnerability to middle housing-ready areas, with red being the most vulnerable and green being the least.
City of Asheville
This map identifies the displacement vulnerability to middle housing-ready areas, with red being the most vulnerable and green being the least.

The effects of gentrification on vulnerable and redlined neighborhoods was also considered in the study’s recommendation.

Oakley, South French Broad, Shiloh, and sections of Montford were all identified as areas that are “highly vulnerable” and already experiencing gentrification, meaning developments in these areas could place residents at a higher risk of displacement than in other neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods considered less vulnerable to displacement include West Asheville, North Asheville, Beverly Hills, Royal Pines, and parts of South Asheville.

For the more vulnerable neighborhoods, the study suggested a toolbox of “anti-displacement strategies.” A core idea of these anti-displacement strategies is to protect residents through programs that offer tenant protection, foreclosure assistance, home repairs, and a “Right to Return,” the latter which prioritizes current and former longtime residents of the community for the city's affordable housing investments.

Another anti-displacement strategy, the study recommends, is to use public funds to preserve existing affordable housing and produce new housing at all income levels, especially affordable housing.

Making a study into reality?

Now that the study is finalized, Turner said the city will get to work on adopting some of the recommended programs and making changes to Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance.

The study recommends that the work will start with several in-house teams, including one that focuses on implementing missing middle housing policy and another that implements displacement mitigation strategies. It also suggests developing a pilot project with local partners that illustrates how middle housing could operate in Asheville, along with a community land trust.

“We'll do what we do best. We'll start at a committee level. We'll have our volunteers review and give critique and input and we'll work it up the chain until it gets to council,” Turner said.

“I'm confident that we can assess what's needed, work with the community on greater input and impacts and then adopt some new ordinances.”

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.