illustration of Jordan Kohl

How to build "missing middle" housing in Carmel

- urbanism, housing, Carmel — 4 min read

Carmel, the city where I now live, has a housing affordability problem. This is not unique to Carmel, but how we got here is interesting. Carmel is a suburb of Indianapolis and like most suburbs, is mostly single family houses. However it has earned numerous awards and glowing press for it's walkable and bikeable core. Unlike other cities, this wasn't accomplished by enabling organic growth through reduced parking mandates or abolishing single family zoning. Instead, the city heavily incentiviced mixed-use redevelopment with Tax Incremental Financing and a long list of zoning exemptions for each project.

So while there are numerous 5 story apartment buildings with ground-floor retail, those are juxtaposed by single story houses right next door. The demand to live in the walkable downtown has surpassed supply and residents making the median income of Carmel are not able to afford the median home price. Anyone making under $120K per year is having an especially hard time finding affordable housing. These are the people that we depend on for running our economy: cooks, waiters, teachers, and more.

To better understand the problem, the mayor has created a "Housing Task Force" to "study the state of housing in the city". You can watch the first meeting on YouTube (I gave a public comment). The first meeting mostly revolved around a presentation by a consultant, that outlined how Carmel has the same problem as nearly everywhere else in the country: housing is unaffordable on median incomes and that's largely due to a lack of "missing middle" housing.

In addition to giving a public comment at the meeting, I also sent a follow up email to the (only) city councilor on the task force:

Councilor Aasen,

Thank you for taking part in the Housing Task Force and for speaking on behalf of your constituents. I am a resident of the North Central district and I spoke at today's meeting, asking the task force to look at how Carmel's zoning code limits what developers can build, both financially and legally. A great example are duplexes. These are only legal to build in R3 zoning, which only applies to a handful of properties within Carmel. Combined with max lot coverage, minimum setbacks, parking requirements, etc. it makes it an unwise investment if not impossible.

As shown in the meeting today, there is demand for missing middle housing. Since small-scale multifamily projects are not possible, what happens instead is large-scale development, by developers with deep pockets, that can afford to weather the delays of zoning appeals and public hearings. Still the final product gets watered down by neighborhood opposition. However, if building missing middle housing was allowed by law, then it wouldn't require public feedback on every property. It would enable small-scale development that slowly closes the gap in demand and affordability, while also allowing neighbors to adjust to density. It would enable individual home builders to participate in the growth of Carmel. Personally, I would love to be able to build a duplex near midtown so that I could afford to live there by renting out the other half.

I hope this task force is able to work with, or make recommendations to the city council committee reviewing Carmel's Unified Development Ordinance, because the housing market and zoning are inextricably linked. You mentioned not being afraid to think big. I love that! Here are 6 big examples that will help Carmel add more missing middle housing.

Here's a great video (using Fort Wayne zoning code as an example) of how to tweak a few numbers to enable more density even within single family neighborhoods.

Thanks for your time,

Jordan Kohl

At the same time, the mostly new city council is reviewing the Unified Development Ordinance, "a nearly 400-page document codifying the city’s zoning and development standards and processes". This is a huge moment in the future direction of the city. The city zoning code is vital in determining what actually gets built.

Most of Carmel is zoned for single family housing only. This means it is illegal to build an ADU, a duplex, or any other type of multi-family housing without appealing for a rezone or variance. While the city might be in favor of up-zoning and infill projects, a vocal minority of residents will inevitably show up to public hearings to oppose any density near their home. These battles can drag on for years, which requires deep pockets. The end result is that only large developers can afford to build in Carmel and even then have to be incentivized with things like TIF just to make the project “pencil out”.

What can Carmel actually do?

In my opinion, the solution to Carmel's housing crisis is to simply build more dense housing. We can't solve the problem with more 2,000 square foot houses on 10,000 square foot lots. That's not economically or environmentally sustainable. It's the housing trap we're already in. But in order to build more gentle density: small homes, duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and condos, we need the city to relax zoning restrictions. If I had a wishlist for zoning reform in Carmel, it would like something like this:

With these changes, it might be possible for individual home owners, or future ones, to build and buy affordable housing. I'm looking forward to seeing what the task force discovers and decides to do with the information they gather. Ultimately, I hope we end up with a simplified zoning code that allows for a healthier mix of housing types.