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Olympians on the “Missing Middle:” Contentious reaction to a Community Planning proposal that affects people where they live

It was standing room only at a March 19 hearing on a set of Community Planning & Development (CP&D) changes to Olympia’s residential zoning code. Well over 200 people squeezed into the City Hall council chambers, then crowded into the foyer outside. 140 of them signed up to tell Planning Commission members what they thought about the so-called “Missing Middle” proposal. About 2/3 of them supported the proposal and the other third expressed serious reservations. People had very different views both of what kind of housing Olympia offers now, and what would happen in the future if the City Council adopts the changes.

What’s here now

Proponents of the new rules almost uniformly took the same view as Leonard Bauer, Deputy Director of CP&D. Bauer had earlier described Olympia’s current housing situation as pretty bleak:

“Like many cities, Olympia has a lot of low-density zoning districts that currently allow single family houses with limited ability to do anything else. Olympia has some provision for townhouses but beyond that, there’s not much for “missing middle” in nearly three quarters of the city’s area.”

The picture painted by those who opposed adoption of the rules as written was very different. Contrary to Bauer’s claim, many established neighborhoods contain small apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and a number of ADUs (accessory dwelling units) – the very housing types the CP&D says are missing. The explanation for this variety is that the city has applied different zoning requirements to different neighborhoods over time.

Existing zoning, again in contrast to Mr. Bauer’s statement, allows for small scale multi-family and clustered housing in at least seven of the city’s 14 residential zones. ADUs are permitted in all of Olympia. Co-housing, cottages, and duplexes are permitted in all but one zone. Tri-plexes and four-plexes are permitted in several. There’s even a specific zone (R7-13) that seems to have been written by the “missing middle” proponents (1). Olympia differs from other cities, too, in that fully 43% of its housing is already multifamily housing.

Predicting a rosy future

The proponents shared a certainty that the new rules would usher in a future of abundant housing, with smaller and more affordable places to live, compared to the no-longer attainable single family home. Thousands of new homes will be built, and since “no one has repealed the law of supply and demand, they will be more affordable.”

CP&D takes a similar position: its proposed rules will eliminate sprawl, support local business and better transit, give homeowners an option for extra income to stay in their houses. Encouraging smaller dwelling units also matches a new demographic: according to the city, only 14% of Olympia’s households are couples with children (2).

The CP&D proposal has two parts. It allows multiplexes—in two zones where they’re not currently allowed—plus “courtyard apartments” in all residential zones. However, the rules go beyond that. They substantially reduce minimum lot sizes, increase heights, eliminate certain parking requirements, and allow rental of residences with ADUs by absentee owners.

These changes are “permissive”—their effect depends on who the new investors will be. CP&D, along with most of the supporters at the hearing, seems to think many will be homeowners and local people – building a back-yard house or otherwise adding to their residence to create an additional dwelling unit.

The opponents at the hearing were skeptical

As one commenter pointed out, the plan does not address the city’s responsibility to address any fall-out from these changes. Others were specific: bus service had not improved, but deteriorated in one neighborhood even as density and traffic increased. What about the relationship between new tri- or fourplexes adjacent to existing homes with drainage issues already? More than one pointed to the rules’ relaxing requirements for on-site parking—already on-street parking and consequent traffic problems create difficulties, with little interest by the city in working to find solutions.

Absentee owners

But there was also another major concern: these changes open up lucrative new opportunities in the housing market. One was very clear about issues with non-resident owners being able to develop ADUs. First, by reducing parking requirements, the proposals make it easier to develop an ADU than to develop a duplex (or remodel a home to a duplex). Second, allowing non-resident owners to develop ADUs means they can compete in the market with people trying to find an affordable home.

According to an Eastside resident who spoke, they are already seeing realtors advertising that if the “missing middle” proposals are adopted, each property could have an ADU – with an accompanying increase in the sale price because the “opportunity to develop” is priced in.

What’s next?

The schedule for presentation of the proposal to the City Council for adoption was mid-May—with the rules to go into effect a week later. This could be delayed because a group of residents has filed a legal challenge to the city’s determination that there is no significant environmental impact associated with the changes.

The argument for speedy implementation is that we are in a housing crisis – these changes are needed now. But the city also acknowledges that among the biggest barriers is the “impact fee”. While they have agreed to study the role these fees might have on the incentive to build, they will remain a deterrent even if the city implements the proposal this spring. As noted by a housing advocate, “As long as there’s no change to the fees, we’re not going to see the influx of housing we need.” 

A failed public process

There was also a marked difference of opinion across commenters about moving forward. Many people criticized the public process as having failed. “Subarea Planning,” a city process touted as incorporating residents into decisions about how to shape growth in their neighborhood was completely ignored in the development of these rules.

These individuals had suggestions for a delay in the schedule to allow for improved information about the proposal and its impacts. Take 6 months to make these proposals logical and well-written. Rather than wholesale zoning changes, target the areas of town most likely to accommodate infill without damage to the infrastructure or the character of the neighborhood. Some even suggested that the proposal is actually a rezone masquerading as a simple adjustment to the rules. A rezone would require an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan—a more extensive process.

Proponents rejected the idea that more discussion was needed. Some questioned the goodwill of the detractors—older people were able to buy a house, but they oppose changes that would let millenials own homes. “I love my grandmother, but…” said one. They accused them of chicken littlism—exaggerating the effects of the changes—“the sky is falling.” They appeared to have faith in the market’s response to these new opportunities.

The housing market, as we learned in the 2000s, is an investor’s playground. With new opportunities to multiply living units and increase return in the context of continuing demand, the beneficiaries may not be homeowners, new home buyers or renters—but developers and investors.

Bethany Weidner lives in a single-family home in SW Olympia, with a backyard ADU, across the street from a huge duplex permitted by the city about 10 years ago.

(1) Mixed Residential 7-13 Units per Acre. To accommodate a compatible mixture of houses, duplexes, townhouses, and apartments in integrated developments with densities that provide a broad range of housing opportunities; to provide a variety of housing types and styles; and to provide for development with a density and configuration that facilitates effective and efficient mass transit service. This district generally consists of parcels along arterial or collector streets of sufficient size to enable development of a variety of housing types.

(2) According to 2015 data from HUD, the Thurston County population is made up 44% of families with children. That sugggests that families already can’t find affordable housing in Olympia, not that Olympia should built more 1- and 2- person housing units.


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