Hot Lots: The Overlooked Opportunities of Lot Auctions and Missing Middle Housing

by | Oct 12, 2022

Bidders, submit your applications – Norfolk’s City-Owned Vacant Property Online Auction for Fall 2022 opens on the 14th. For (probably) less than $30,000, a vacant residential lot in Norfolk could be yours! Here’s a map showing this quarter’s offerings (in red):

Upon successfully acquiring one of these properties, the winning bidder must begin construction of a single-family home within nine months of the deed transfer date, with construction completed within 12 months. This program intends to offer “homeowners and developers the opportunity to invest in the City of Norfolk by purchasing and redeveloping city-owned properties for the purpose of constructing a single-family home” and “transform underutilized properties, increase economic inclusion, encourage and support wealth building through homeownership, and strengthen neighborhoods and communities.” 

At first glance, it’s hard to argue with this logic. Of course, it’s beneficial to get vacant properties off the city’s tax rolls and to increase the housing stock. The stipulations of the deed transfer require a house to be built on the lot within one year and that the home is owner-occupied for seven years from receiving a Certificate of Occupancy. These are reasonable provisions to include because it reduces the chances of speculative buying, where the buyer sits on the lot in hopes of reselling it at a higher price, as well as the possibility of a builder charging exorbitant rents.

But this raises many questions, too – the main one being, why only single-family homes? Sure, the parcels in question are in Single-Family zoning districts, where one single-family dwelling is to be built on one lot (you can see these districts, in yellow, on this zoning map). Maybe the city is reluctant to allow denser housing types for fear of being accused of illegal spot-zoning. However, spot-zoning is typically applied when the single-use is vastly different from the general use; for example, somebody rezoned a lot in the middle of a residential street for a gas station. Incrementally increasing housing density to accommodate “Missing Middle” housing does not seem like an egregious case of spot-zoning.  

The Missing Middle has become a hot topic in recent years and is essentially the “middle” range of housing types between detached single-family housing and large apartment complexes. To see it in action, take a walk around Ghent – many of those huge houses are duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes. Walkup apartments are typical, too; say somebody lives in a building with 12 units. Per Norfolk’s Zoning Ordinance (pages 166-196 if you’re interested), this is multi-family housing at a “Neighborhood Scale” as opposed to “Apartment Complex” or “Highrise.” 

Norfolk City Council adopted the Missing Middle Pattern Book in June 2021 to address “multi-family housing that is compatible in single-family neighborhoods.” The city does not list this book on its zoning webpage, which is a shame since it seems like the perfect tool to complement the Vacant Lot Auction. What, then, is the preferred alternative? To demolish an existing SFH and build a Missing Middle house type in its place, wasting both housing stock and building materials? Page 79 of the Pattern Book shows parcels currently authorized to receive Missing Middle housing, in addition to parcels that could be, pending further study and legislation. Why not allow any lots up for auction in both the permitted AND potential zoning districts with multi-family dwellings?

Maybe the “owner-occupied” requirement makes multi-family housing too administratively tricky. But condominiums exist, and their occupants privately own them. Is it unreasonable to think someone would build a duplex, live in one unit, and rent out the other? Or that some friends would conceivably want to live near each other and go in on a property together? Granted, most of these lots up for auction are small. But the option shouldn’t be precluded, especially since “increasing economic inclusion” is a stated goal of the auction program and “housing choice and affordability” is a goal of the Missing Middle Pattern Book and, by the transitive property, the city.  

The negative impacts of single-family zoning are well documented, and there have been numerous attempts to address them. The long and short of it is that single-family zoning is a holdover from older, more explicitly discriminatory housing policies designed to keep *tHoSe* people out of specific neighborhoods. These antiquated zoning rules entrench segregation and block newer, younger homebuyers from accessing the housing market and building wealth (the problematic cultural more of homeownership as the means to build wealth, rather than a human right or a means of providing basic shelter, notwithstanding). Norfolk residents are mostly renters (56.5%). The median rental cost of a 3-bedroom (my arbitrary definition of “single-family”) apartment is $1,841  per month, while a 3-bedroom house costs $2,000. The median home value in Norfolk is $283,259, up nearly 13% from last year. Meanwhile, the median income per person is $30,706. 

We typically don’t know the financial situations of strangers, but making a fair assumption, the average homeowner isn’t sitting on enough capital to build a whole extra house. It’s also frustrating that “homeowners” are specified instead of “residents” – is there no love for renters who want to stop renting? There is also no indication of any price cap for these new SFHs. Sure, *free market* and all that, and increased supply should decrease price. But unaffordable is still unaffordable and therefore inaccessible. 

This Vacant Lot program is undoubtedly a move in the right direction and will likely add much-needed affordable homes to Norfolk. The Missing Middle Pattern Book is an essential tool that does not appear to have gotten much attention, even though it could be enormously helpful in tandem with the Vacant Lot program or as a standalone intervention. Hopefully, the city will revisit these programs and find synergies that increase the stock of affordable housing in all its forms for Norfolk residents. 

Catie Sauer

Ghent, NFK

Catie was born in Norfolk and as an adult has lived here for two years and change. She has a master's in Environmental Planning and Design from the University of Georgia. She likes hiking, playing trivia, being a flaneuse, pinball, memes, and growing vegetables. 

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