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The 'Missing Middle': Denver-area mayors examine duplexes as affordable housing solution

Posted at 6:41 AM, May 05, 2021

DENVER — In the middle of an affordable housing crisis, the "Missing Middle" of housing, duplexes, triplexes, condos and town homes are being examined as one potential solution.

More than a dozen mayors from across the Denver metro met Tuesday with business leaders and housing experts to hear from the mayor of Minneapolis.

"It's something that I campaigned on when I ran for mayor, and I'm proud to say it's something that we got done," said Mayor Jacob Frey, who said last year Minneapolis became the first major U.S. city to ban single-family zoning that had locked up half the city's land and contributed to racial inequities. "We have maps that quite literally say that our northern section of the city should be explicitly for Blacks and Jews. And then what happened is the Civil Rights Act passed and all of the things that we used to do explicitly, all of the things that used to be explicitly racist, the city then started doing implicitly through the zoning code."

For the last year, though, Minneapolis has allowed up to three housing units on every property. Frey said the change has been incremental, with only 34 duplexes and 9 triplexes.

"This is not like a fix-all solution," said Frey. "There are a lot of people out there that will say that just by allowing for duplexes and triplexes, you aren't in and of itself creating affordable housing. And they're right."

In Colorado, the Mayor of Englewood, Linda Olsen, pointed out that duplexes in her city are selling for upwards of $600,000, a good deal for developers, but hardly affordable housing.

In Denver, 2019 zoning changes allowed for more "Missing Middle" construction. While it was more nuanced than Minneapolis' broad zoning reform, it included allowing corner lots to have more units in an otherwise one- or two-unit neighborhood and allowing a second unit in an existing house if the house itself remains.

But many Denver residents are still adjusting to the impact on their neighborhoods.

"Everything was low slung a decade ago and now it's huge," said Doug Pearce, who lives in Denver's West Colfax neighborhood. "And they are not affordable. They're like triple the price of everything they're scraping, you're increasing the density and the traffic. We're kind of at our breaking point. I don't know how much more population density we can take on"

The bottom line, though, is that Colorado needs affordable homes, and many see this as a potential tool in the toolbox.

"This is a huge issue for employers that their employees can't afford to live here," said Kelly Brough, the President and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. "This is a conversation. What if you simply allow even duplexes or triplexes to be built where historically you only allowed a single family home? In essence, what it does is immediately reduces the price of the land because you're now spreading that price of the lot between two homes or three homes."