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Opinion | Olympia’s missing middle: a good plan for people and the planet

The Olympia Planning Commission’s Missing Middle plan has been met with unnecessary controversy. By allowing alternative dwelling units (ADUs), tiny houses, and duplexes in new neighborhoods, Olympia is able to deal with two critical issues at once. The first is driving down the costs of housing by alleviating the city’s housing shortage. The second is increasing urban density so less development happens in rural territory. Unfortunately, achieving these goals has been made more difficult by opposition to the Missing Middle plan. While some criticism may be misinformed, other criticisms are motivated by economic self-interest. Historically, homeowners across the United States have promoted restrictive zoning practices, often justified with environmental rhetoric, in order to maintain property values. Unfortunately, Olympia is not immune to these practices.

Low vacancy, high rents

Olympia is in the middle of a housing shortage. According to the Department of Numbers, a database website that calculates information based on the US Census, the 2015 rental vacancy rate in Olympia is at a tight 3.27 percent. To put that in perspective, the national average is nearly double at 5.85 percent. This tight vacancy rate means that Olympia’s rents are high and climbing. In 2005, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment in Olympia was $925. By 2015 it had climbed to $1,041. Compared to national averages for the same time period the amounts are $858 and $959, respectively.

Adding housing units will drive down cost

The best way to bring down the cost of housing is to add more units. The greater and more diverse the supply of housing in the market, the greater decline in prices will occur. ADUs, tiny homes, and duplexes help reduce the overall price of housing in the by adding to the housing stock in the terms of diversity and raw numbers. This is especially the case for units that can offer housing at discounted rates. Newer homes and apartments tend to cost more than older ones for two reasons: one, they are better quality, and two, there is higher demand. ADUs and tiny houses cost more per square foot compared to single-family homes because of economies of scale, but they are able to avoid high prices overall because consumers are purchasing a smaller unit with fewer features. As more of these types of units get added to the housing market, bargaining power shifts from the seller to the consumer, and this drives down the price of housing in general.   

Not gentrification but its opposite

Concerns that ADUs, tiny homes, and duplexes will cause gentrification misunderstand the concept. Gentrification is caused by a “rent gap.” Essentially, a rent gap occurs when the cost of land becomes cheap due to underinvestment. This leads to low rents. Even though the land is cheap, its potential value is immense because developers recognize nearby pent-up demand. They purchase the land for cheap, quickly redevelop it, and rent or sell it at a premium. Not only is land in Olympia not cheap, but the areas that would experience the up-zoning from the Missing Middle plan are some of the wealthiest areas in Olympia.

Emmett O’Connell, on his blog Olympia Time, analyzed neighborhoods that have the greatest potential for growth under the Missing Middle plan. These areas tended to be wealthy and located on the Southeast side. The fear that these areas would become gentrified if they allow townhouses and duplexes—dwelling units normally occupied by people of modest means—flips the idea of gentrification around. If anything, the Missing Middle plan would reverse some of the social stratification associated with gentrification by providing more modestly priced housing options in some of Olympia’s wealthier neighborhoods.

High population density in Oly’s urban nodes

Critics of the Missing Middle plan claim that it is unnecessary because Olympia can absorb all its growth in three urban nodes: the downtown, the Martin-Pacific-Lilly triangle, and around Capital Mall. Not only is the idea that these areas will somehow absorb all the approximately 20,000 people who are expected to move to the city in the next 20 years extremely tenuous, but the suggestion is patently unfair and environmentally irresponsible. The areas listed above all have high population densities and, not surprisingly, are areas where most of Olympia’s poor and working-class residents are concentrated. Building enough housing for all potential future residents in these areas would require putting every parcel of land that could be used for parks, green spaces, or recreation on the market.

Consider the inequality of the suggestion. Instead of having the economically privileged neighborhoods in Olympia—whose residents already have their own lawns and driveways—accept more neighbors, less economically privileged neighborhoods are asked to absorb all the growth and possibly risk losing the potential for neighborhood amenities.

Purpose of the urban growth boundary

Furthermore, trying to concentrate all the growth in these areas all but ensures that the county will fail to meet its conservation goals. The Thurston County Regional Planning Council recommends limiting new housing units in rural areas from now until 2035 to 5 percent. The prospect of reaching that goal is not looking good. Between 2015 and 2017, approximately 10.7 percent of new units in the county were built in rural areas. In terms of ecological responsibility, the best thing the city can do is absorb as much growth as possible within its urban growth boundary. After all, what is the point of having an urban growth boundary if it is not going to accommodate urban growth?  

“Slow growth” is not a solution

Finally, those opposed to the Missing Middle plan often appeal to a version of “slow-growth” environmentalism. Singling out developers as ecological villains, the slow-growth movement offers the proposition that stopping or slowing the rate of economic development would solve our environmental problems. Instead of promoting dense, mixed-use, and evenly distributed urban development, municipalities should discourage new development altogether and adopt a “small is beautiful” ethos that zones for single-family homes.

The recommendations from the slow-growth movement could not be more wrong. According to the Energy Information Administration, apartment buildings are far more efficient than any collection of single-family homes. Single-family homes built in the 2000s consume 10 percent more energy than homes built in the 1970’s. Meanwhile, apartments with 2-4 units built in the 2000s consume 5 percent less energy than their 1970s counterparts. For apartments with 5 or more units, the drop is even more dramatic with a 12 percent decrease.

Environmental benefits of apartment buildings

Overall, average residential energy consumption has decreased due to greater efficiencies in appliances and heating, but the most dramatic drop has been in large apartment complexes. Between 1980 and 2009, energy consumption in apartment buildings with 5 or more units decreased by 48 percent. For single-family homes, gains have been offset by the fact that their average size has increased. Opponents to the Missing Middle plan who are concerned with the environment should be clamoring to increase the density of their neighborhoods by welcoming large apartment buildings that house more people with less energy.   

 A shameful history of restrictive zoning

These environmental arguments are not surprising considering the history of restrictive zoning laws. Zoning laws and the environmental justifications for them became popular in the early 1970s. The first generation of post-World War II homeowners was able to ride the wave of subsidized suburban development, but they did so with exclusionary policies. People of color and poor people were prevented from owning homes by various discriminatory practices. However, after the social breakthroughs of the 1960s, these groups were poised to enter suburban neighborhoods.

At that point, homeowner associations began to argue that every cul-de-sac was a fragile ecosystem. As professor William Fischel of Dartmouth College has noted

“after political and legal pressure began to be applied to accommodate a variety of housing, general population growth looked less attractive to suburban voters. The thinking by [homeowners] might have been, if we have to take blacks and the poor along with everyone else, maybe we would prefer to have no growth at all. Of course, public expressions of such ideas [were] unacceptable, so an alternative rationale for stopping growth was necessary. Preservation of the environment by preserving open space… began to be especially popular.”

Fischel admits that proving intention is notoriously difficult, but nevertheless remains convinced that “the primary reason people participate in stopping development is their concern with their home values.”

Preventing movement toward a healthy, diverse and affordable Olympia

This history is extremely important to consider when evaluating criticism to the Missing Middle plan. As Olympia’s population grows, it becomes more ethnically and economically diverse, but this diversity could be stifled by restrictive zoning practices. If Olympia’s slow-growth movement succeeds, the end result will be an Olympia that remains largely white, stuck in a housing shortage, and surrounded by a rural area that has been ecologically damaged by development projects that could have gone elsewhere. That is a situation that is great for wealthy white homeowners within city limits, bad for everyone else.    

Marco Rosaire Rossi is a writer, activist, and former resident of Olympia. He is currently pursuing a PhD in urban politics at the University of Chicago-Illinois.




  1. Karen Messmer March 3, 2018

    Marco –
    1. I believe ADU is short for ‘accessory dwelling unit’ not ‘alternative dwelling’ unit as you state in your second sentence.
    2. I hope generally you don’t aspire to make assumptions about people by their color or means. Please don’t point fingers at ‘wealthy white homeowners’ and generalize about us/them.

  2. Karen M March 3, 2018

    Marco –
    1. I believe ADU is short for ‘accessory dwelling unit’ not ‘alternative dwelling’ unit as you state in your second sentence.
    2. I hope generally you don’t aspire to make assumptions about people by their color or means. Please don’t point fingers at ‘wealthy white homeowners’ and generalize about us/them.

  3. Harry Branch March 3, 2018

    Marco, I have two overriding concerns. Firstly, there’s growing evidence of a correlation between living among ugly buildings and poorer mental health and I find most new buildings ugly. Secondly, many of them are built of resin impregnated plastic wrapped materials with PVC window frames and polyethylene plumbing and so on the real cradle to grave costs of which are never considered. In 50 years or whenever they give out they’re going to represent a mountain range of toxic waste. One after another has popped up heading south from the airport on 99 or 509 over the past ten years. Some are already flaking indicating possible moisture intrusion. I believe we all want the best thing not just for ourselves but future generations and other species as well and unfortunately these concerns are after left out. Harry

  4. Helen Wheatley March 3, 2018

    There is a difference between gentrification and speculation. Gentrification is a phenomenon of bigger cities. A good example would be Portland’s Albina neighborhood. I think the bigger concern for people living in established neighborhoods in Olympia is speculation. I haven’t heard a good explanation of what mechanisms might exist in this proposed rezoning to moderate that.

  5. Jeff Thomas March 5, 2018

    Helen –

    This plan only addresses zoning issues and therefore will not address issues of speculation.

    Direct tools to limit speculation, as far as I’ve been able to discern, are severely limited in the US. Tools that are effective exist in Germany, which has tight mortgage controls, and Vienna, which has a high proportion of public housing.

    While we won’t be able to utilize these direct tools, we should look at the single most relevant factor in speculation – supply. What investors are speculating is that demand will far outpace supply and drive up prices. Montreal, Chicago, Berlin – we can look at a long list of cities which experienced economic and population growth while not seeing the steep rises in rent and property value we see in Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver BC and NYC.

    The prime difference between these groups of cities is ease and support of building new units. This “missing middle” plan is an attempt to copy the policies of cities that successfully warded off speculative rises in property value.

    Olympia will next be looking at other tools, such as building fees and property taxes. We need the city to change the way they assess fees – currently developers are incentivized to build more expensive units and strongly disincentived against building more affordable units. We can flip that around – there’s already support for the changes in the government, our role as citizens will be to push to make those changes as robust and progressive as possible.

  6. Bob Jacobs March 5, 2018

    I am a long-time subscriber to WIP and served as a neighborhood representative on the Missing Middle Work Group. I have also observed the housing market for decades.

    Marco seems to have bought into the argument that adding housing options in existing neighborhoods will increase the supply of housing and thus decrease housing prices. Not so. People who invest their money in housing construction — and the lenders who provide the bulk of the funding — will not do projects unless there is a solid expectation of a market for the new housing units, whether sale or rent. So if more units are added in existing neighborhoods, less other housing will be built (single-family subdivisions and apartments). Housing surpluses that drive down prices occur when an economic downturn drives people to other housing arrangements like sharing. This is what happened eight years ago and will happen again in the next downturn. This cycle is well known and there is no avoiding it.

    I am also concerned that Mario may be among the many people who don’t know that fully half of the ten housing types included in the Missing Middle exercise are already allowed in Olympia. This includes the two most popular and lowest-impact options, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and tiny houses. [The city’s communications have been misleading from the start.] These have been allowed for many years and in fact many ADUs are already in place (there are a number of them in my neighborhood, including three in a single block).

    The Missing Middle proposal includes five new housing options. These tend to be the most impactful, like threeplexes, fourplexes, and courtyard apartment houses. As far as existing neighborhoods are concerned, these options will affect only lower-income neighborhoods (especially on the east side), where the combination of large lots and small, inexpensive houses would create the possibility that existing “starter houses” will be torn down and replaced by more expensive rentals. The social consequences are obvious.

    Finally, I am concerned that this post and similar recent communications seem to place little to no value on single-family neighborhoods. Perhaps such neighborhoods are not the “American dream” for as many people as in the past. But there are still people, including younger people, who want a house with a yard where they can plant garden, put up a swing set for the kids, and let the dog exercise.

    It is unfortunate that the city has provided so little opportunity for actual discussion of the issues raised by their Missing Middle proposals. Let us hope they do so soon.

    Meantime, there are 43 separate staff recommendations related to 5 existing housing types and 5 new ones. We can all review and comment on these — see the city of Olympia website.

  7. Jeff Thomas March 5, 2018

    You’re saying that lowering barriers to home construction doesn’t affect home supply. I’ve never heard that argument in any sources I’ve read. I’m curious where you learned this fact, based on what you’re saying it sounds like you’ve read some observation-based studies on development in other cities? Also, Olympia is growing quickly and we currently have a housing shortage. Does the research you’re referring to apply in this situation?

    I have to disagree with your assertion that three are set in stone housing cycles independent of policy.

    We can directly compare similar cities, over the same time period, with similar economic and population growth, and clearly see that housing supply is affected by government policy.

  8. Miss Kitten March 6, 2018

    I am writing in response to the gentleman who says that living next to ugly housing causes psychological damage. Wow. That is probably one of the most selfish things I have ever heard. How about the psychological damage that being with out a house causes? What about not even having a place to sit legally? How about not having a safe place to sleep, to go to the bathroom, to not worry about being arrested or even hoping to get arrested so at least you would have food and shelter? Wow. I’m so glad I moved out of that narrow minded town.

  9. Valerie Krull March 6, 2018

    I’d like to directly respond to the assertions around classism and racism in this article. First, to say that some people have class and race bias as they consider housing in neighborhoods is true beyond question. White people (of which I am one) and wealthy (which is relative) people are reasonable suspects. We could not be free of this unconscious bias if we tried. Hopefully we are trying always to surface this and make sure it is not driving our thinking and actions. That does not mean that people with serious concerns about the Missing Middle are primarily driven by this inherent oppression, and I find it particularly disturbing that this article attributes this specifically to those who have battled for their neighborhoods ecosystems.

  10. J My'kel Ushke March 13, 2018

    1) Calling something “an unnecessary controversy” is dangerous rhetoric as it silences the dissenting voice, rather than listening and adapting to it.

    – The fact that there is so much “controversy” around the Missing Middle plan is highly reasonable since it concerns peoples’ housing situations. It relates to survival, so the issue is incredibly personal.

    – Much of the controversy that Rossi acknowledges in this opinion piece is the voice of wealthy white people – environmentalist “slow-growth” people and homeowners. However, there is controversy coming from not wealthy, not white people. Yet, Rossi does not speak to these voices.

    2) Gentrification is caused by more complex and deeper issues than “rent gap”. It is a continuation of colonization, it’s habits and mindsets. If the core issue is deeper than “rent gap”, then the solution is going to be different than increasing the supply of houses.

    3) If we are acknowledging rationality and history (as Rossi does through his opinion piece), then we need to understand the complexities of this history. Housing discrimination did not start with zoning laws, it started with theft of land, rape and genocide of native people and Black people from Africa. These are deep wounds. They will not be solved by the Missing Middle plan for three reasons. 1) The Missing Middle plan is still working to benefit rich developers at the expense of marginalized people. 2) The Missing Middle plan is not centering voices of color, trans voices, women’s voice and poor people’s voices. Neither is Rossi’s article. 3) The fact that people are trying to implement the Missing Middle plan at such a quick rate and ignore controversy or dissenting voices is indicative of the mentality that allows for and perpetuates white supremacy.

    While the Missing Middle plan may be a better solution than other proposed solutions to increasing population and rent prices, it is not the best solution. Listening to concerns and adapting the Missing Middle plan to meet those concerns is more useful than going with the plan as planned. Another solution altogether would be to focus more on the voices of people who are continually hurt by racism, sexism, cis-sexism and classism, allow those people to speak for themselves and develop socio-economic ways to devalue money and increase the value in relationship building, honesty, full transparency and safety for the undervalued and marginalized. Adopting the framework of healing and transformative justice in the way of not perpetuating colonization and racism would be the best way to ensure equality, health and care for everyone.

  11. J My'kel Ushke March 13, 2018

    Additionally, if people were really concerned with survival and getting everyone a house to live in, then the Missing Middle plan should include limiting the amount of houses that an individual can own to maybe one or two. This way, there would be a decrease in “landlords” who are primarily concerned with their own safety, and people could have their own houses, rather than rent in the first place. In order for this to happen, people who work in city council would have to care about money less than they care about the health of communities of color and gender-nonconforming poor people.

  12. Jeff DeLuca March 18, 2018

    Wait, are property values going to drop or are people going to be priced out? You can’t have it both ways. It’s always a shame to see radical progressives
    get swept up by capitalists (yes, if you own a house you’re by definition a capitalist), and in this case, mostly those in the richest quadrant of the city, the SE, to help them protect their holdings. Being called out for your racist and classist opposition to new neighbors is not the same as the impact of the racist and classist implications of one’s political views, no matter how local and disconnected they seem from the bigger picture. Read a history book. They’re not.

  13. Jim Keogh March 21, 2018

    A peculiar failure in this discussion is that it fails to address the Missing Middle proposals’ allowance for non-resident owners to develop ADUs and, in addition, provides an incentive–allowing them to forgo development of related parking (in fact, they’ll be allowed to displace currently garaged cars to the street). The end result is that non-resident investors will be competing with would-be residential owners for properties. This addition of a new, more moneyed buying group will inevitably drive up prices for the very people trying to get a foothold in the home ownership market–while at the same time degrading conditions in the lower middle income neighborhoods they buy up properties in. Bob Jacobs is correct when he says that the MM proposals will adversely affect lower income neighborhoods; the Eastside neighborhood is an example of such, with home prices that are about 25% below the Thurston county average but plenty of homes that can be bought up cheaply by investors to be cheaply converted, via ADUs and splitting up homes, into ad-hoc duplexes and triplexes (remember, now they don’t need to provide parking!) and then speculated on until the city decides to upzone the neighborhood further to fullscale multiplexes (with no complaints from the investor owners who will by then have gained the upper hand over the current neighborhood homeowners).

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