Finding the ‘Missing Middle’ in Gaithersburg’s Housing Supply

In February, the personal finance website WalletHub named Gaithersburg the “Most Ethnically Diverse Small City in the U.S.” for the third time in the last four years. It is a distinction in which the City takes great pride, and rightly so. But with such a distinction come responsibilities.

Gaithersburg, like Montgomery County in general, lacks adequate affordable housing. According to the City’s recent Visioning Exercise conducted by the VCU Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, occupancy by ownership and rent are split nearly in half, and of the latter, more than half of Gaithersburg Census tracts have most of their renter households “cost-burdened,” with more than 30 percent of their gross income spent on housing costs. Even that does not tell the whole story for those families, though, since that statistic does not factor in the high transportation costs associated with living in what is, for now, still a heavily car-dependent city.

To be sure, the City has adopted measures meant to address its affordable housing shortage, highlighted by its Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Program, which requires that new developments of 20 or more rental or purchase units set aside 15 percent of those units as moderately priced. However, akin to what is presently transpiring throughout the country, reliance on inclusionary zoning laws as the primary mechanism for addressing this issue can instead exacerbate it by disincentivizing developers to proceed with new construction of multifamily dwellings, or at least in as large a scale as originally conceived. Fewer units equals higher rents.

What is needed is a more holistic approach that meets the housing needs of each City resident, and that starts with finding what has become known as the “missing middle” in housing supply. This includes a diverse set of housing options, such as duplexes, fourplexes, courtyard apartments, and bungalow courts, that can cater to a wider spectrum of our community whose living demands are, at present, left unfulfilled by the City’s mainly  bifurcated housing supply: expensive, single-family detached homes or mid-rise apartments. They are types of dwellings that, in fact, were long a staple in American housing; that is, until they lost favor in the rise of postwar suburbia and the creation of single-family subdivisions.

As our community has become ever more diverse—not just ethnically and racially, but also economically—it is time that we revisit the “missing middle” in order to afford all City residents the ability to find the housing solution that best suits their needs: whether that be newlyweds searching for their first home; empty nesters looking to downsize but still have their own house; or even low- to moderate-income families just wanting a chance to build some equity. Diversifying the City’s housing supply in such a manner also supports a wide range of other commonly supported City initiatives, such as promoting smart growth, improving public  transit, and even fostering environmental sustainability. In fact, a recent study conducted at University of California, Berkeley, found that infilling housing around existing suburbs “can reduce greenhouse gas pollution more effectively than any other option.”

Of course, such a measure alone is not a panacea to the City’s housing situation, and other workable solutions also should be extensively explored, from accessory dwelling units to community land trusts. But by focusing its immediate efforts on the “missing middle,” the City could take significant strides at resolving its housing shortage and demonstrate that it well understands the responsibilities that come with being the “Most Ethnically Diverse Small City in the U.S.”

—Jason Wilcox, Kentlands resident and member of the City of Gaithersburg Educational Enrichment Committee