Home Commentary Invisible Infill: One Housing Solution for the Missing Middle

Invisible Infill: One Housing Solution for the Missing Middle

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By Pat Hinkley 

The need for more housing in Montpelier is a growing concern. Montpelier requires more housing today than in years past. Jobs remain unfilled as workers fail to find nearby living space for their families. Many newspaper articles decry the severe lack, yet few solutions gain traction.

The Sustainable Montpelier Coalition (SMC) addresses the lack of affordable housing by way of its first step called “Invisible Infill.” It is invisible because the feel of the neighborhood remains the same while new housing is created. This first and fairly immediate step concentrates on the lack of opportunities for the “missing middle” between single-family and multifamily housing. Two local resources are put to work: a great stock of an estimated 200 older and large houses in town, plus aging residents living in beautiful, yet expensive and no longer feasible, homes.

Several years ago Sustainable Montpelier hosted a design competition to envision necessary modifications for our downtown. The resulting designs sparked enthusiasm and also showed that the city could reduce its need for downtown parking and increase the availability of housing. The coalition facilitated the creation of “MY Ride,” GMTA’s transit solution intended to reduce the need for personal vehicles and their intrinsic parking pressures. The pandemic has been a two-edged sword, with reduced demand for shared transit, and a drastically reduced number of downtown workers, who now work from home.

Next steps that are more thorny revolve around addressing the need for more housing. Several housing developments for Montpelier are under discussion, and Sustainable Montpelier encourages those plans to move forward with appropriate neighborhood participation. Invisible Infill adds a short-term strategy for new housing opportunities. Owners of large old houses can renovate those homes to accommodate novel configurations of apartments so that owners, often older folks with limited means to meet their housing expenses, realize income to cover their costs.

This strategy has many advantages. Existing zoning allows for “accessory dwelling units (the tool of invisible infill) in most cases. Invisible infill requires less time to create housing than new housing developments. Carefully designed apartments or duplexes can be built into existing homes while maintaining the experience of the neighborhood. Options may include returning former rental units in a currently single family home back into rental units, or creating new rental units within houses, carriage barns, or even tiny houses on the property. These can be created at a lower cost than new construction. This affordable housing result supports young families who want to set their roots in Montpelier. Furthermore, Invisible Infill helps older residents age in a familiar place they love. The existing character of neighborhoods is maintained. This approach cuts each family’s housing carbon footprint in half!

The benefits of Invisible Infill are clear: more housing units; small units for singles or couples; income for elders in large homes; decreased carbon footprint of residents living in existing homes; and incremental growth in existing neighborhoods without significant burden to downtown services.

Nonetheless, taking on such a project can be a daunting task for homeowners alone. 

The state of Vermont recognizes the value of Accessory Dwelling Units and provides financial support to help homeowners become part of the state’s housing solution. A state grant is administered by DownStreet Housing and Community Development. 

Sustainable Montpelier can help homeowners through the process with technical assistance, administrative services, a walk through, a meeting, and a questionnaire to help owners fully consider the endeavor. Project assistance includes siting and design support, with rough cost estimates and finding funding to convert third floor and attic spaces and carriage barns. The Sustainable Montpelier Coalition is developing advisory subcommittees of architects, builders, and financial professionals, and creating a resource guide for homeowners. The coalition has found significant interest in the concept amongst groups in town: Downstreet Housing and Community Development, city housing and planning members, contractors, developers, retired architects with experience in design and construction in renovations.

Invisible Infill is a novel idea — where homeowners, funders, contractors, and future residents become part of the solution. Like many good ideas, however, it requires a coordinated effort to move forward. The coalition has experience in coordinating the Design Competition and My Ride. Now we look for partners to allow Invisible Infill to enhance Montpelier. Our goal is to help dozens of homeowners develop new housing units for future residents.

What do you think? Are you interested in adding housing units to your own home? Would you like to help with outreach and problem solving? Can you provide funding to support the effort?

Let us know by contacting us at 802-272-1195.

Pat Hinkley is a board member of the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition.