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The future of Olympia’s urban zoning

In the face of covid-19 and climate change

The paradigm of ever-expanding development on a finite planet is ill-fated, especially forcing neighborhoods to sacrifice to accommodate more “yuppie” transplants. This doesn’t meet Growth Management Act requirements and would change Olympia from being a small, close-knit city into a mess similar to Surrey, BC, Canada, where my son lives.

There, efforts to promote multi-family housing have led to traffic snarls; gang violence; loss of forests, parks, and salmon; and overcrowded schools that require students to take classes in trailers. In the Olympia area, rising apartment rents have compelled residents (e.g., my girlfriend) to take displaced renters into their houses, as apartment rents are increasing elsewhere to make way for a “yuppie” influx (e.g., the Angelos’ Easterly development on Eastside Street [Leahy 2020]). Market-rate housing makes developers more money and has been shamelessly promoted by the Olympia City Council, in contrast to low-income housing.

Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, a long-time friend (now a retiree) asked if I knew anyone to rent a room from, so I showed her my house. She was afraid that her commercial-housing rent would double when the apartment complex changed ownership (more recently). Her retiree status would make that tough because her social-security payments are modest. Indeed, the Lacey Community Center hosted a forum a while ago (pre-COVID-19) for senior citizens concerned about such golden-year gentrification.

Now that we’re in a long-term pandemic and entering another recession, the focus should be on apartment rent control and helping homegrown businesses stay afloat.

In examining the three presentations about Olympia’s housing-code amendments for residential-area infill by the rental industry, I have major concerns. Notably, I dislike Missing Middle (MM) and state-level bills (e.g., HR 1923) that promote high-density, market-rate housing (especially for Seattle transplants) at the expense of poorer, homegrown people (Leahy 2020) that are becoming increasingly homeless since the Great Recession (Lively 2020).

Especially in this COVID-19 and climate-change era, we don’t need further clogging of I-5 and our neighborhoods with rich Central Sound people who’d rather live here, but still work up north, i.e., JBLM, Tacoma, or Seattle (so the state has expanded public transit between them via bus, rail, and van-pool options and now has evening traffic lights at Olympia-area I-5 on-ramps heading south, to modulate traffic flow). So the Olympia Planning Commission’s continued focus on promoting multi-family housing in residential neighborhoods seems akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Now that we’re in a long-term pandemic and entering another recession, the focus should be on apartment rent-control and helping homegrown businesses stay afloat, to preserve our way of life. If the homeless situation isn’t dealt with, viral outbreaks could come back to haunt the rest of us. Too often, Olympia is subsidizing market-rate housing as poorer tenants (including our retired folk) are ousted to accommodate Central Sound transplants willing to pay higher rents. This isn’t social justice, and Olympia must do more to cap endless rent increases.

Hence, it’s time to rethink city development planning to avoid the mistakes that are bankrupting California. That is, there should be subsidies for low-income housing but NOT market-rate housing (Leahy 2020), the latter an example of what I call “reverse Robin Hood socialism”. Else we’re are in danger of Einstein’s definition of insanity, i.e., “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

When I was an Olympia apartment dweller a few years ago, annual rent increases really stressed out my poorer, disabled neighbors. Such businesses (i.e., Brentwood Apartments and Prime Locations, Inc.) also collectively ignored health and safety concerns like anti-mold protection (e.g., double-paned windows away from heaters), replacement of rotting wood, and proactive hill safety for non-motorists (via early-morning sanding, before people go to work in winter). New apartment complexes would eventually experience the same problems without better regulations.

Unfortunately, multi-family housing won’t necessarily help poorer people. I once had “sticker shock” when trying to rent a duplex near downtown Olympia, which was less economical than buying a small house nearby. Moreover, such shared dwellings don’t typically incorporate progressive technology like solar panels or eco-gardens. Indeed, Prime Locations, Inc. lacked organic bin recycling and removed my son’s garden and banned others after we moved out.

The American dream is to own our own home, which allows federal-tax breaks to make life more affordable. So the Missing Middle and HR 1923 (as promoted by politician Beth Doglio) will potentially gentrify Olympia the way that’s happened in larger Pacific Northwest cities (e.g., Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and even Spokane), as well as more broadly in California (see http://www.densitydoneright.org). Such squelching of public input by ignoring potential environmental impacts (Lively 2020) contradicts Doglio’s environmental roots.

Seattle’s homeless population is so large that the unfiltered sewage threatens to reverse gains that we’ve made to clean up Puget Sound (Goodman and Stewart 2020). Likewise, some state lands (e.g.Morse Creek Wildlife Area Unit and Irving Lawson Access Area) have recently closed because of the growing homeless populations there. Hence, we’ve got inadequate environmental justice to reduce stormwater runoff into Puget Sound (Ballash 2016). As emphasized by Raworth (2018) and Czech (2020), we need to focus on economic sustainability, rather than on the “cancer” of endless growth. This includes more emphasis on smart-building standards to save imperiled Southern Resident orcas (Pulkkinen 2020). Indeed, California has recently promoted solar panels for new developments.

In times like these, I recommend the (a) classic ‘Who’ song Won’t Get Fooled Again or (b) the recent film The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Can’t we learn from past mistakes? Olympia shouldn’t be a “puppy-dog” suburb of Seattle for many quality-of-life reasons. Moreover, why should two-car garages for townhomes be approved along bus lines (Olympia’s MM focus), as along Boulevard Road for market-rate housing that removed a dozen homeless tents during land clearing? Are we OK with more homeless people along Capitol Lake and I-5? As poorer people lose options and become homeless, so too are the rest of us impacted.

Bob Vadas, Jr. is a longtime Olympia-area resident who has interests in environmental issues and music. After tiring of exploitative apartment living, he now lives in the first Green Built home of Olympia, including installation of solar panels since moving there. Before COVID-19, he regularly cycled to work, although crossing the road was tough via traffic congestion.

Sources consulted

Ballash, H., ed. 2016. Building Cities in the Rain: watershed prioritization for stormwater retrofits. Washington Department of Commerce Publication 2016(6): 50 pp. (https://www.ezview.wa.gov/site/alias__1780/34828/ default.aspx).

Czech, B. 2020. Planet of the Humans puts sacred cows out to pasture. Steady State Herald (Arlington, VA), May 1: 1 p. (https://steadystate.org/planet-of-the-humans-puts-sacred-cows-out-to-pasture).

Goodman, E., and M. Stewart. 2020. Illegal RV sewage dumping in Seattle pollutes waterways and poses a public-health hazard (updated). Seattle Times, June 30: 1 p. (https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/illegal-rv-sewage-dumping-pollutes-waterways-and-poses-a-public-health-hazard).

Leahy, D. 2020. A short tale about the City Council incentivizing homelessness. Works In Progress 30(8): 5 (https://olywip.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/WIPmar20-web.pdf).

Lively, L. 2020. Olympia’s Missing Middle rezone: what’s missing is transparency and public dialogue. Works In Progress 30(7): 13 (https://olywip.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/WIPfeb20-web.pdf).

Pulkkinen, L. 2020. WA considers requiring new construction projects to improve the environment: a push in the state Legislature could make ‘net ecological gain’ the new standard for building. Crosscut (Seattle, WA), March 4: 1 p. (https://crosscut.com/2020/03/wa-considers-requiring-new-construction-projects-improve-environment).

Raworth, K. 2018. A healthy economy should be designed to thrive not grow (oral presentation). TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks [online], April (https://www.ted.com/talks/kate_raworth_a_healthy_economy_should_be_designed_to_thrive_not_grow).

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