Olympia’s Missing Middle rezone
The national housing shortage affects millions in the US who can’t afford to rent, let alone buy, a home. The epidemic has rightly sparked a national conversation over racial and economic inequality, the beleaguered middle class and even climate change. But the conversation is fraught with triggering language, polarizing political spins, and attractive but unproven solutions.
In Olympia, City officials have a plan for increasing affordable housing. They’re so sure their radical rezoning proposal, the “Missing Middle” is a great idea that they have repeatedly avoided public input on the plan. And if HB 1923, the housing bill they pushed through congress last year, is such a good idea, why are similar moves being challenged in communities around the country?
HB 1923 follows a growing urban design trend that calls for rezoning neighborhoods to add high density housing to neighborhoods historically characterized by single-family dwellings, aka “houses.” Proponents say the radical restructuring will integrate neighborhoods economically, socially and racially, offering the possibility of home ownership to more people. Sounds great, right?
The same government and industry players responsible for the largest transfer of wealth in our country’s history now say they have the answers again.
There is no evidence that “building our way out of inequality” will work, sadly. Data from a similar plan in California suggests that uncontrolled gentrification will be the real result of such rezoning, and that only the top 30% – young high wage earners attracted to urban living – will probably be served by the plan, while the remaining 70% will continue to lose ground economically.
Developers, who typically receive significant property tax breaks on new projects (which are ultimately covered by taxpayers), are not required to provide any actual housing units for low or middle-income residents. Nor can they give any hard numbers about how much the proposed units will cost or how they plan to attract minority populations.
In an age where words are weaponized, simply questioning something like HB 1923 has become dangerous. In this case, opponents of HB 1923 or the Missing Middle, regardless of their actual background, are being characterized as privileged white homeowners afraid of changing their way of life. Some of their critics even suggest that home ownership is a relic destined for the history books and that reduced livability of neighborhoods is just a casualty of the social justice revolution.
Don’t fall for the shaming and virtue signaling. The truth is more complicated than that. Ask any one of the 10 million Americans who lost their homes in the 2008 mortgage crisis. The same government and industry players responsible for the largest transfer of wealth in our country’s history now say they have the answers again. And they don’t mind pitting us against each other to create a distraction from their own complicity.
The truth is there are lots of good ideas coming from all sides, like Dr. Ali Moderras, Chair of the Urban Studies Dept. at UW Tacoma, whose research on housing, wealth distribution and the migration of labor is affecting nationwide policy. Community groups like Livable California and Portland Is Not For Sale and Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability & Equity (SCALE) have all arisen to demand public participation in decisions that affect their neighborhoods. Here in Olympia, Olympians & Smart Development and Livable Neighborhoods has practically begged the City to look at the alternative plan they developed in August 2018.
At the very least, we need to know exactly what Housing Bill 1923 would do to create fair, accessible housing for all when so much of it hinges on working with private developers who promise but aren’t required to provide a percentage of each parcel to affordable housing? That’s always worked out so well in the past, hasn’t it?
Until the City can show real numbers about how much new housing they are creating for lower income families and how it will lower rental rates, we need more dialogue, more transparency, and more buy-in from the people the plan will affect.
Lori Lively has been a free-lance writer and marketing consultant since the early 1980s.
Note: Attainable Housing and the Future of Prosperity and Inclusion in Pierce County will be hosted by University of Washington-Tacoma’s Urban Studies Dept. on Wednesday, March 4, at William Philip Hall. Details at www.tacoma.uw.edu/urban-studies/urban-studies-annual-forum.