“Missing middle” housing includes the many kinds of multi-family housing that result in more density than single-family detached homes and less density than mid-rise apartment buildings. Missing middle housing includes duplexes, townhomes, cottages, and many other residential building-types that Salt Lake City’s zoning currently restricts. Current zoning codes in Salt Lake City make it practically unfeasible, and in some cases illegal, to build missing middle housing.
In recent years, affordable housing advocates have pursued the revision of single-family zoning requirements, but single-family zoning is not, in fact, the only form of zoning that needs reform in order to achieve a truly affordable, liveable city. Many multi-family residential districts – or RMF districts – are also restrained by zoning requirements that pose a major obstacle to the production of new, more affordable housing. While some locales have simply abolished single-family zoning outright (as the State of California did in 2021), loosening some zoning requirements of RMF districts can be key to catalyzing the creation of missing middle housing.
In Salt Lake City, more missing-middle housing would be helpful in (at least) two major ways:
First, more middle-density housing types would help address ongoing gentrification in the city. Salt Lake City’s Thriving in Place survey found that 38.5% of respondents wanted to buy a home but couldn’t afford it. Lack of affordable multi-family units in particular is helping to drive families out of the city – more affordable housing types would begin to address this. The lack of housing units that middle-class households can afford to buy - such as missing-middle housing - forces some of these households to remain on the rental market, contributing to inflating rental prices.
Second, and relatedly, more middle-density housing could rejuvenate Salt Lake City schools. Enrollment rates in the Salt Lake City School District are plummeting, and this is in part due to a lack of affordable family housing: most new housing being built right now is too small for families, and usually rental, so new families with younger children who want to own a home and start building wealth can’t find opportunity within the city. More missing-middle housing like townhomes, duplexes, and triplexes, would create opportunities for ownership of units that have at least 3 bedrooms.
In principle, RMF districts are precisely where mid-density housing units ought to be developed. Unfortunately, current zoning requirements in RMF districts often stifle the development of these housing types. In Salt Lake City, the current provisions in the RFM 30 district create barriers to the production of missing-middle housing by requiring, among other things, excessive setbacks, minimum lot sizes, and minimum lot widths. These provisions make it very difficult, if not illegal, to build housing types such as cottage courts and sideways row houses in neighborhoods that would benefit from them greatly.
For this reason, reforms to RMF districts are a big part of ensuring that more common housing reforms, such as those directed at single-family zoning districts, can actually succeed. When Minneapolis abolished most single-family zoning, the effectiveness of that policy in generating affordable housing was undercut by a comparative lack of reform for zoning restrictions that affect middle-density housing: a developer who wished to build triplex, for example, would be forced to abide lot-size, parking, and height requirements left over from single-family zoning policies – restrictions that blunted the potential for affordable housing development in that city, despite other reforms to zoning code.
The city’s proposed changes to the RMF-30 district are the first step that Salt Lake City needs to take to cultivate a more affordable housing market as well as diversify the housing types that meet the needs of diverse households.
The positive changes being proposed would:
- Allow the construction of compatible multi-family building types including cottage developments sideways row houses, and tiny houses without special approval.
- Reduce the minimum lot area requirements per unit.
- Remove minimum lot width requirements.
- Allow more than one building on a lot without public street frontage.
- Grant a unit bonus for the retention of an existing structure on a lot.
Zoning reforms will not result in Utah’s residential neighborhoods being knocked down and replaced with townhomes overnight, as some opponents of zoning reform have declared. Zoning reform in Salt Lake City can result in gradual, incremental change.
Salt Lake City already has duplexes, triplexes, cottage courts, and townhomes in many of its most sought-after neighborhoods - from East Liberty Park to Liberty Wells to the Avenues. These building types are already part of the character of these neighborhoods, but they’re heavily restricted now. Diverse housing types like these are part of what makes these neighborhoods special, as their gentle density supports small businesses, civic institutions, and a sense of community identity. Facilitating the construction of these housing types by reforming RFM-30 zoning will help our neighborhoods evolve into more inclusive and thriving communities.
By approving the proposed changes to the RMF-30 district, the Salt Lake City Council can address a critical piece of Salt Lake City’s housing needs by making it easier to build attainable missing-middle housing.
Victory! The Salt Lake City Council approved the RMF-30 Zoning Changes at the October 18th meeting.
Slider image photo credit: AARP