Tuesday, March 06, 2018

A short history of why conservation districts hold elections the way they do

One of the oft-repeated observations over the last few weeks as the drama surrounding the Thurston Conservation District has unfolded is that conservation districts are weird in how they run their elections.

It is head scratching that conservation districts, unlike every other form of government (including major parties who elect precinct committee officers), run their own elections. This results in seemingly low-rent affairs that include needing to drive to Tumwater to old school drop a ballot in a ballot box.

The history behind why conservation districts hold their own elections goes back to the formation of the districts in the late 1930s. This is when the Dust Bowl spurred Washington state to first allow their establishment.

Conservation districts aren't the only special districts in Washington, they're just the type that we're currently worried about. And, it turns out, they aren't the only ones exempt from the general election laws, but those other districts (like drainage and diking districts) still require that a voter also be a landowner (therefore a property taxpayer) in the district).

Sidenote: Someone can correct me on this, but it seems like most of the special districts are rural in nature. I mean, they seem like they're created to address some specific aspect of rural life or commerce.

Conservation districts strayed from that landowner provision throughout the years, it seems almost by mistake. The best way to explain it would be to understand how landowners in a neighborhood pay for a new sidewalk or sewer line if the city can't or won't pay for it. They petition for and form a local improvement district, and tax themselves for the improvement.

When conservation districts were first formed in 1939 only landowners could vote in their elections.  The federal government sent down a model state soil conservation act in 1937, and after Washington adopted ours, the Palouse took no time to form their first district in October 1939.

The mood of this article pretty much gives you what you need to know.

"Palouse men."

Conservation districts were not general governments. They were somewhere between all the other sort of special districts that had and were already allowed that provided services to specific needs (irrigation districts, diking districts) and general purpose rural organizations like granges.

The law changed in 1973 to allow "land occupiers" to vote, seemingly to allow people who were leasing land or otherwise using it to also vote.

And then in 1999, the law changed again to allow for any registered voter to vote for conservation district supervisor. It is important to point out that according to the legislative record, this was totally by accident. HB 1747 was passed in 1999 to create a way for cities to leave conservation district boundaries. There were concerns about overlapping programs, so cities wanted a way out. To shoehorn in the petition process that a city would use, they put in a reference into the conservation district laws to "registered voters" instead of "land occupiers."

 And this is when it all got very janky in regards to all registered voters.

For a hot second, the Attorney general said that those references meant that conservation districts were covered under the general election law.  The conservation district elections in 2001 were handled by county auditors, like most other government elections. Because local governments have to pay a prorated amount for their participation in an election, if conservation districts didn't hold their elections with a lot of other jurisdictions, it became very cost prohibitive.

So, with the support of a lot of organized agricultural interests in 2002 (Farm Bureau and the Dairy and Cattlemen's associations), the legislature voted to leave in the part where they allowed any registered voter to participate. But they also clearly reverted to the old rules of conservation districts being able to run their own elections without the county auditor.

In 2002, this wasn't so transparently a big difference because Washington had not yet changed over to an all-mail system. But it seems very odd now.

So, in short, it has always been that way, but the rules changed over time to allow for more participation, but also not deliberately. It costs less to do it this way and at a point when the legislature could have made conservation districst play by the same rules, they decided not to.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

When middle went missing in Olympia

At some point, Olympia stopped building low-density multi-family housing.

In older neighborhoods, you can find duplexes courtyard and mansion apartments dotted along blocks. Even in blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s,
you can see duplexes interspersed between single-family homes.

But as you get into newer neighborhoods, it is harder and harder to find examples of affordable, low-density multi-family housing. I can show you when this happened, but I can't show you why.

EDIT 10:18 a.m.: Ignore that chart down below. It isn't detailed enough. This chart really shows a population spike in Thurston County in the mid-70s and how low-density multi-family housing tracked with migration until the 1980s. Then they became untethered.

What this chart shows you is the population of Olympia by decade plotted against the construction decade of structures with two to four housing units (Use Code 12). This would cover anything from a duplex to a fourplex and some kinds of smaller apartment buildings. I think this use code is a good stand-in for what we now call the Missing Middle in Olympia.

It seems like that for most of Olympia's history, the construction of these low-density multi-family buildings pretty much tracked with population growth in Olympia. But in the 1970s they took off, far outpacing population growth. And, then construction of these units crashed and never recovered.

Because the above data is aggregated by decade, it looks like most of the growth is happening in the 1970s. But if you look at it in more detail, you see something else happening.

Multiplex housing spiked in the mid to late 1970s and then crashed in the early 1980s. While there have been spikes in construction since then, it never really recovered to even the levels that we saw after World War II. The boom in the late 1970s and crash in 1980 coincides with the boom in migration into Olympia and the early 1980s recession that stopped it. The late 1970s still stands as the largest ever influx ever of new residents into Thurston County.

I'd like to chase down exactly what happened to low-density multi-family housing after the 1970s. Based on my post last week and the numbers I'm seeing here, it seems like that at some point after the early 1980s recession that slowed migration Olympia, we changed our zoning laws to clamp down on duplexes. Then we likely experienced a few decades of slower growth where we exacerbated the ends of our housing options (single family homes and multilevel apartments).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How the history of our neighborhoods points to our Missing Middle past

At one time in Olympia, and most other cities, neighborhoods grew one house at a time and they grew with different needs in mind. Mixed-density housing was prevalent prior to World War II and was exactly the kind of development that originally encouraged walkable neighborhoods. 

The Carylon neighborhood is a great example of this. A month ago I took a look at a duplex in Carlyon that I was interested in renting. It was a bit outside my price range at the time, and to be honest, I was surprised it was even available in that neighborhood.

Because it shouldn't have been allowed (yellow means no duplexes under current zoning):

Also interestingly, I thought that it was a single family house that had been split into a duplex, but I researched the history of the structure, and it had always been a duplex. 

And, it turns out, that one duplex was not as rare as I thought in Carlyon. The map below shows the different use codes for the buildings in the neighborhood. Red is single family homes, purple are duplexes and blue are apartments:

There are not only duplexes spread throughout the neighborhood, there are even a couple of small apartment buildings. This shows how Carlyon, before zoning in our neighborhoods became more restrictive, was able to provide housing for residents across the economic spectrum.

There is a section of the Bigelow Neighborhood that is also a good example of this:

While still mostly single family homes, these neighborhoods have a decent mix of middle-density housing options. And, a lot of it is illegal under current zoning. That if we tried to build a lot of the housing now available in these neighborhoods, it wouldn't be allowed.

And, I don't think anyone can say that these sections of Olympia are unlivable. All in all, they probably represent some of the most economically accessible, livable and walkable neighborhoods we have. And, this is no small part because of the diversity in housing options they offer.

And, they also represent a way of building homes in this city that we don't have anymore because of the restrictive way our zoning works. The traditional manner of regulating neighborhoods was to allow for a diversity of housing types on a block. The way we do things now, with restrictive zones that allow for very few housing types in neighborhoods, is relatively new and experimental. It is also, in my opinion, largely unsuccessful. It has created neighborhoods that are economically stratified and car-dependent.

It wasn't until after World War II that a single developer would take on building all the homes in a neighborhood, which cut down on the diversity of home types.

In this next map, you can really see how the houses were built in the Carlyon neighborhood over a long period of time. It took several decades for this neighborhood to transition from a former cattle ranch into a residential neighborhood. When it was making that transition, it was part of neither the city of Olympia or Tumwater. In fact, it was the uneven development of the neighborhood that gives it it's most unique characteristic, the jumpy city border between Olympia and Tumwater. But that is more trivia than something underlying my bigger point.

While diversity is present in the neighborhood I live in, Briggs Village in Southeast Olympia, my neighborhood is the exception that proves the rule. Diversity isn't usually a mark of planned development. The helter-skelter of the market historically has allowed builders to offer what was needed on a neighborhood scale when they were able to sell it. 

This incredible story at Sightline shows how single-family zoning became more prevalent over time in Seattle, that neighborhoods at one point had been able to be fitted with more than one sort of housing option. While the Missing Middle recommendations we're considering in Olympia now are not an up-zone, the city of Seattle conciously downzoned most of the city in the 20th century, outlawing options like townhomes and neighborhood scale apartment buildings.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It's time to acknowledge how messed up the Thurston Conservation District is and you should vote to change that

This is not the blog post you were looking for if you're looking for the entire story behind what's going on at the Thurston Conservation District.

I've been hearing about this on-going train wreck of a story through second-hand accounts and snippets I could find in the official record for months. And there is totally enough here for a real reporter to dig into. And I've been hoping for the adults in the room to take over.

But, in the last few weeks, the district dumped a bunch of draft meeting minutes onto their website, giving a more complete picture of the dysfunction over at the TCD. So, I'm going to take a shot at giving you a picture of what's going on.

Also, Dani Madrone and I will interview Joel Hansen, an associate (non-voting) board member of TCD, on The Olympia Standard at the end of this week.

Lastly, while there is some diagonal overlap between my professional work and this topic, this blog post in no way represents the opinions of anyone I work for. It's all me.

Here is the too long, didn't read of the situation: somewhere in the last year, the board of the TCD decided they wanted to change how they funded most of the functions of the district. This is a complicated process in the best of times. But in the meantime, they decided to not re-up the method of funding they did not prefer (as assessment) while they prepared the new method (fees and charges system). Actually, the new system wouldn't even be submitted to Thurston County until May of this year, at best. So, as of January 1, the district lost 40 percent of its funding. Additionally, the dysfunction on the board (which you can read about below) has further slowed the process. Because these obviously aren't the best of times for TCD.

Some state-level organizations have taken notice of what is going on. The state Recreation and Conservation Office (which works with TCD on salmon recovery projects) shot off a letter basically telling TCD to stay in their lane.

The state Conservation Commission, which oversees all local conservation commissions, began threatening consequences in November if the dysfunction didn't tamp down.

So, what dysfunction?

Here's the bullet list put together by the state conservation commission in the letter linked to above:

The state Conservation Commission has the power to remove board members of local conservation districts and will at least start considering removing board members from TCD soon. The state commission recently gave their executive director the authority to "issue a notice of a hearing to each supervisor of the Thurston Conservation District regarding removal of supervisors under RCW 89.08.200."

One example of board members behaving badly is described by  one of the staff members from the State Conservation Commission when he laid into the board during the November 21 meeting:

Another is a how the board has been limiting public comment, seemingly to people they like. 

During their December meeting, the board allowed one member of the public to take up all five minutes of public comment. That's all they had allotted, five minutes. And, if one person took it all up, then everyone else would have to give it in writing. Now, it really is up to a board of a commission how they handle public comment. But there's an issue of fairness here. If you only have five minutes, then why let one person take it all? And, if you're going to let one person talk, then why not let other people get up and talk? Most local boards I've either served on or witnesses allow anyone to come and speak, but they've put a limit on the individual speakers' time. Anyway, as you can see from below, this didn't go over well.

From the December board meeting minutes:

In this particular meeting, the board ended up relenting, but it still looks pretty bad that people from the audience had to essentially shame them into letting everyone talk. It is worth pointing out that the one person they did allow to step up and speak (Joe Hanna) has had at different times interjected into board discussions during the meeting. Also in my experience, this isn't a normal practice either.

Also, apparently, no one at the conservation district was signing checks so they weren't even paying rent (again from the December meeting):

So what you can do right now to voice your desire for change at the conservation district is vote before March 3. The last day to request an absentee ballot is February 28.

There's an open seat on the board which is being filled by probably the weirdest election you'll ever vote in. There's no mail-in ballot, you have to work directly with the conservation district to vote. It used to be that you had to go to the district office, but now you can go online and directly request an absentee ballot.

The League of Women Voters are also holding a forum tonight on Tuesday, February 13 for several of the candidates.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

What would it mean for the nature of our city that the Missing Middle would have the biggest impact on Southeast Olympia?

Southeast Olympia is already wealthy and conservative. Would allowing more housing types down there change that?

The above map is a mashup of two different maps. 

The first is a parcel density map of where the Missing Middle recommendations would have the greatest impact. It shows where the buildable parcels left to be developed match up with the potential for Missing Middle housing. For those just showing up, Missing Middle is the variety of housing between an apartment and a single-family home, such as a townhouse, duplex or courtyard apartment.

The second map (which is displayed in white to red placemarks) is the election results from the Lisa Parshley vs. Allen Miller race last November. Miller districts (more conservative) are lighter, Parshley districts (more progressive) are darker.

Now, this isn't an exact science but what this map tells me is that the neighborhoods with the greatest potential for growth from Missing Middle housing are far more conservative.

To me, it totally follows that neighborhoods that are less dense, with bigger yards and longer commutes, would be the more conservative. And, it turns out, much wealthier.

This next map is a selection of a map that shows how income really is distributed across the city. Some of the wealthiest parts (here in deep red) are in the same sections, down in the Southeast side of town where Missing Middle is hard to find, but the potential is the greatest.

So, imagine a scenario where Missing Middle housing becomes available across the broad swath of Southeast Olympia. What happens to the grassy, large single family home dominated section of Olympia? Does it become more progressive? Does it become more egalitarian? 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Renters are nice people and other thoughts on the demagoguery of the Missing Middle

Missing Middle from AIA Austin
Right now the Olympia planning commission is considering a list of recommendations about the so-called Missing Middle. These recommendations would hopefully increase density in Olympia's least dense neighborhoods by allowing duplexes, townhomes, courtyard apartments and ADUs in the mostly the upper elevation swaths of single-family homes neighborhoods.

As you would expect, there are a bunch of people who are not fans of this idea. And as you might expect, they belong to existing neighborhood organizations in well established (but I would argue not traditional) residential neighborhoods. As Whitney Bowerman argued in this excellent email she sent to the planning commission, these organizations represent mostly older homeowners who want to preserve the low-density character of their neighborhoods.

This testimony to the planning commission I think almost perfectly encompasses this attitude.

First off, she makes a point that we shouldn't follow the example of Seattle. Implying that by increasing density you don't do much to decrease housing costs. The fact is that rents and housing costs have started to decline in Seattle, mostly because of all those cranes on the skyline are starting to make a dent in demand.

Renters are not bad, I'm a renter

About two minutes into her testimony, she starts to get into a caricature of homeownership. "For generations, working people have dreamed of owning a house," she said. Specifically a house, and in her mind, a detached single family home. Which is also a specific type of home that hasn't been historically accessible to many people or even now.

"It is not just a financial investment, it is an emotional investment and a social investment as well," she said. Apparently, when you own a home, your emotions should matter more and your memories are deeper and richer.

"Outside those walls and over the fences, they (homeowners) create social networks," she said. "Perhaps not in the days of old when someone was home and could build social capital in the neighborhood, but people do participate in Nextdoor, attend annual meetings... they are literally invested in their neighborhoods."

This is all a slam on the nature of renting a home. Personally, I've done both. I've rented in almost every quadrant of Olympia and owned two homes in East Olympia. Currently, I rent an apartment in Southeast Olympia and hope one day to own again, but not a single family detached home. My goal is a townhouse with as little yard as possible.

But this belies the philosophy behind this anti-density testimony. The neighbor I had that called me a piece of shit while I was outside with my toddler owned his home. He still owned it when the police arrested him for waving a gun at his wife. I'm sure he had memories in my neighborhood, but they weren't more meaningful because he paid a mortgage.

I've also had a series of neighbors that have quickly moved in from out of state, bought a home and relatively quickly moved out without making a dent in my community. They were not literally invested in anything and their presence, while pleasant, did not have a deeper impact on the neighborhood.

It isn't about renters vs. homeowners, it's about density and affordability

I agree the research indicates that homeownership by-in-large means better things for a community.

The testimony is also moving the ball from a debate on increasing density in Olympia's low-density neighborhoods to a debate over the value of homeowners vs. renters. At least in the examples of townhomes and possibly courtyard apartments, the Missing Middle will be the only actual path to homeownership that some people can ever use. And, the option of duplexes and ADUs will possibly allow some folks, who would like to set down permanent roots in a neighborhood, stay in a neighborhood.

Imagine for a moment a single mother who got a late start on retirement. She has an addition in her small home that she can easily transition into an ADU if it was allowed by the city. That would keep her in her home past retirement.

Currently, a lot of neighborhoods in Olympia fail the test of liveability in two major ways. They are too low density to really be considered walkable. Even if a small neighborhood center like Wildwood did want to located inside some of these neighborhoods, it wouldn't survive because single-family neighborhoods simply aren't dense enough.

Also, we fail in terms of variety of housing types, especially in the car-dependent SE neighborhoods. A good neighborhood ensures that multiple generations of the same family can live in the area, that people from a variety of backgrounds can come together. Large swaths of single-family homes, while protecting the nature of a neighborhood, does not promote diversity.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

If you work outside Thurston County, you're likelier to be less of a fan of downtown

The city of Olympia commissioned a public opinion poll in December. The poll mostly covered concrete things like how important various city services are and how well they're being delivered.

But the survey also got into an interesting line of questioning about how residents perceive safety in Olympia. The pollsters asked whether we feel safe in our neighborhoods during the day and night, and more important, how we feel downtown during the day and at night.

Here are the totally unsurprising results:

Most people felt most safe in their own neighborhoods, and then less safe in Olympia in general and then even less safe downtown and especially at night. There were several groups that drove down the results for downtown. If you were from the Northwest neighborhood, if you thought the quality of life in Olympia was low, if you only had a high school education or if you worked outside of Thurston County, you feared downtown more.

The last one is the one that I'm most interested in exploring. If you commute outside of Olympia on a daily basis, I'm going to assume other things about you. You probably also shop in between home and work. Which likely means that at best you do most of your shopping on the Westside, but more than likely you shop in Lacey or in Tumwater. Your daily habits are tied to the freeways your commute doesn't take you downtown.

Here's an interesting tidbit, 17.2 percent of Olympians commute outside of the county for work, according to the American Community Survey. This is up from 16.9 percent in 2015, but the census bureau has only asked this question in the last two years. If you take commute times though, 22.8 percent of Olympians have a commute over 30 minutes. For most people, I'd assume this takes them out of the county, but at least well outside of Olympia so it might as well be out of the county. And, this number took a significant jump between 2011 and 2013 when it went from 18.8 percent to 22.8 percent (it's remained steady since then).

This wrinkle with long-distance commuting and downtown combined with another result of the city survey makes me think that familiarity of Olympia is a leading indicator of how people perceive their own safety. Literally not one of the survey respondents said they feel very unsafe in their own neighborhoods during the day.

So, what does this mean for governing Olympia? A good majority of the complaints about downtown come from people who are obviously not familiar with downtown. They are fearful about downtown, but I doubt very much that they're even downtown at night. Is it the responsibility of the city to govern in the direction of unfamiliarity with reality?