[Ed. Note: The following comment was submitted as a letter; it responds to the March opinion piece by Marco Rossi, “Olympia’s Missing Middle.” Rossi’s piece elicited more comments on the online WIP than any other in recent memory. Please visit olywip.org to read all the comments.]
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.
Rossi 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 Rossi 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.