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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

The City of Wilmington hopes to see more missing middle housing. Is it getting built?

These 9 historic townhomes on McRae each have a small porch and yard.
Kelly Kenoyer
These nine historic townhomes on McRae each have a small porch and yard.

Back in December of 2021, the city of Wilmington created a new comprehensive plan, and made it easier to build so-called missing middle housing all over the place. But what has been the impact of that policy?

In Wilmington, 42% of the city is zoned for low-density housing alone: nothing other than single-family housing can be built in those areas, although now the occasional ADU (accessory dwelling unit) can go up. But there are sections of the city —about 17% of the land — that allow so-called missing middle housing options. That includes townhouses, duplexes, and other slightly more dense housing styles.

Wilmington Planning Director Linda Painter said, “when we're talking about missing middle housing, and we're not talking about a big apartment complex. it's things that are designed to fit into the scale of your neighborhood.”

These housing types are becoming more common in the downtown core, especially on the Northside, where townhouses and duplexes are more prolific — and match construction types that were more common in Wilmington in the 1910s to 1940s. But now they can be built across more of the city under the new comprehensive plan, which allows them to be constructed under R-7 zoning on top of the other locations where they were previously allowed.

There have always been some barriers to the popularity of these housing styles, but Wilmington Assistant Planning Director Brian Chambers says the department is working on making those options easier to build.

“I think we're gaining momentum, I think we're in the right direction, but there's always gonna be things we can do to encourage it in the right places. And I think we're gonna do be more proactive and try to identify locations where it is appropriate in situations where it's appropriate, and support changes there and then incentivize changes," he said.

Right now, the region is facing a severe housing shortage. The community is expected to be short more than 16,000 units in New Hanover County by 2032 — mostly in the form of rentals.

Filling that need is a Herculean task — but since January of 2022, the city has more than 4700 units under review or under construction. Most of those are apartments, but there are more than 800 missing middle units, too.

Painter thinks missing middle housing is an important part of the housing market in Wilmington, although they’ve been less common since the 1950s and 1960s.

“It provide different housing options, you know, hopefully, to be, you know, provide not only different housing options for different lifestyles, but also more affordability, by introducing more units, smaller units, and in really kind of giving that diversity of choice to people," she said.

Other cities facing the same affordability problem, like Minneapolis, went for multiple solutions simultaneously: they deregulated apartments while allowing missing middle housing in every part of the city. Since then, they’ve seen their rents go flat because their construction keeps up with demand. But the vast, vast majority of that growth is in apartments, not in missing middle housing.

Still, what works in a larger city, might not work the same way in a smaller one. Here in Wilmington, missing middle housing can be a less imposing way of adding extra units into a community. And there may be market-based reasons for missing middle housing to work better here: as a small city, there’s simply less demand for apartments in every part of Wilmington.

Buddy Milliken is one of those developers going for missing middle housing. He recently applied to build a quadruplex and a duplex on what used to be a single-family lot, at 1545 N. 41st St. It sits between a single family neighborhood and a commercial corridor.

"Missing middle density is at its core about trying to maintain the charm and the scale of a single-family neighborhood," he told WHQR.

He’s building his six three-bedroom dwellings, with an eye towards communal spaces. He’s pleased with his plans, but chafes at the required minimum number of parking spaces. Parking minimums are often considered a "poison pill" for denser forms of housing, because parking lots take up so much space that could be used for buildings.

Projects like Milliken's are the exact type of projects that Wilmington city planners are hoping for. But to truly fill the housing gap, Chambers also wants to see redevelopments that bring in more new apartments.

Places like the vast, vacant parking lot near Independence Mall are a major opportunity to build new apartments. They’d revitalize those commercial centers while putting housing right where the amenities already are. So far, though, those redevelopment projects are few and far between. River Place, a public-private partnership in downtown, replaced a small parking deck, and a new development on Castle Street is set to replace the old city bus depot. These redevelopments are beneficial because they place the housing growth where residents are already served by grocery stores, public transportation, and other amenities. That proximity means the new residents are less likely to meaningfully contribute to traffic — an issue close to the hearts of many Wilmingtonians.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.