Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Housing affordability for first time home buyers is getting close to a record low in Thurston County

Thurston County is growing, but we aren't building enough housing to keep up with the increase in population. So, housing affordability continues to fall and housing affordability for first time home buyers is approaching an all-time low.

The Rustad Center at the UW recently posted up to date housing market data for the first quarter of 2018 showing how a constricted housing market is driving up costs in Thurston County.

First of all, our population is slowly growing out of our supply of housing in Thurston County and we aren't producing enough to keep up.


Since 2012 we've only built 6,000 housing units in the county, while our population has increased by 20,000. Obviously, more than one person is going to end up living in each unit. But our ratio of person to housing unit has also changed from 2.34 to 2.39. Still slow, but it is going in the wrong direction.

When we look out how we're building housing, we're still very much depending on expensive single-family homes. Only once since 2012 did the number of multi-family units come close to single-family units. In 2016 over 900 multi-family units were built in Thurston County, while over 1,000 single family units were. In most other years, single family-units outstripped multi by at least three times.


At the same time, we're seeing a drop in housing affordability, especially for first time home buyers. The current condition for first time home buyers in Thurston County is already dire, well beneath what would be considered affordable overall. 


According to the Rustad Center, this means that a household earning 70 percent of the median household income (like first time home buyers) had only 67 percent of the income required to purchase a typical starter home in Thurston County. The starter homes that exist are unaffordable for people that would otherwise buy them. This is notable because (as has been pointed out elsewhere), proposals like the Missing Middle in Olympia is aimed at buyers between 80 and 120 percent of median income. While 80 percent is not 70 percent, it sure does get us closer than single-family homes that are much more expensive than low-density multi-family homes. 


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

What happened after we downzoned and the middle went missing in Olympia?

In the last post I showed how a series of zoning changes in the 1980s and 1990s

But Olympia continued to grow. Where did all those people move?

It seems obvious to point out, but they moved it mostly single-family zoned neighborhoods.

More people came to Olympia, so if we weren't getting denser, we sprawled. This map shows every parcel that had a new structure in residential type (even including multi-family) after the 1988 downzone. I pieced it together from a series of webmaps from the Thurston Geodata Center.


Instead of densifying the places where we'd already built, we expanded our footprint over the last few decades, cutting down more trees, paving over more open land. People continued to move into town, and as our interior neighborhoods "stabilized," new neighborhoods continued to be cut out of the woods and farms around Olympia.

Here is the Google engine timelapse from 1984 to today, you can see the exact same thing.

Southeast Olympia:



Westside:
 

I hope this doesn't really need pointing out, but if we're worried about the impact of new growth or preserving natural resources, we would be concerned about sprawl. Again, not new news guys.

From City Observatory:
Cities incur substantial expenses to build roads, transit systems and parks to enable development in a neighborhood. Downzoning automatically increases the per capita costs of all of those investments, because each road, park and bus line can serve fewer people. It also pushes additional development to the urban fringe, where some municipality must build entirely new infrastructure at high cost, and where not incidentally individual households will have to drive more, creating more pollution and congestion plus incurring more transportation costs. Ultimately, downzoning is a recipe for more sprawl: if you can’t build as many apartments, you’ve got to build more single family homes, and you’ll end up consuming a lot more land in the process.
Even if the new roads and utilities we used to enable the post-downzone sprawl was paid for at one point with impact fees, we designed a system to fail. The impact fees only pay for the initial setup of these road and utility systems. Eventually, they'll reach the end of their useful lives and we'll have to pay to replace them. At that point, we've cooked into our zoning a limit on how many taxpayers will be on the hook to replace them. We're essentially pushing the expense of low-density, unwalkable single-family neighborhoods onto the next generation.


Monday, May 21, 2018

When Olympia downzoned and gentrified

In the early 1960s and through the 1970s, most of Olympia's residential neighborhoods allowed housing types that are now included in the city's Missing Middle proposal. The most common of these zones was the RD (Duplex) zone that allowed for single-family homes and duplexes in the same neighborhood. In various generations of Olympia zoning codes, this later became known as R2 and then R 6-12 (meaning six to twelve dwellings per acre). 

In an earlier post, I pointed out how Olympia (and Thurston County) saw its largest influx of new residents in the late-70s. Even the yearly migration of today does not match the spike in new residents between 1977 and 1979. Before and during the 1970s, the construction of 2-4 unit housing pretty much tracked with population growth in Olympia, but in the early 80s, they became unhinged.

This is because Olympia downzoned a series of once density friendly neighborhoods, pushing new growth into largely single-family home zoned neighborhoods on the fringe of the city.

Through the 80s and 90s and to today, the city decreased to the area duplex-friendly zoning covered. This led to examples of places where duplexes had been built, but they weren't actually technically allowed by the zoning rules. In fact, because of persistent downzoning in recent decades, there are literally hundreds of examples of non-conforming missing middle housing throughout the city. 

According to the city's tally, there are over 200 non-conforming duplexes, 462 non-conforming tri/fourplex units, and 89 non-conforming 5-12 unit apartments. All of these were allowed under zoning rules when they were built, but the rules changed over time.

Here is a great example of two non-conforming duplexes at Legion that were allowed in 1978, but not a few years later:


It's worth your time to watch how the zoning maps changed over time. In 1962, the Eastside duplex zone stretched from Eastside up to McCormick.


Then twenty years later (as R-2 zoning), it became much smaller, stretching only to Boundary.


In 1994 it expanded again, but..


It (this time as R 6-12) shrunk back down in 1995 through to today.


We can see the same thing on the Westside. The duplex zone dominated most of the hillside over there in the 1960s and 70s.


Then in the early 80s, the zone shrunk as most of the area downzoned.


And, again in 1994...


But in 1995, the area for duplexes expanded again, taking back a bit of what it used to be.


The most interesting downzone example was in 1988 when the city, downzoned a portion of each of these neighborhoods from a zone that would allow duplexes to a single-family home only zoning. 

There is nearly zero coverage of the 1988 downzone, the only real reference I found to it was in the city minutes. It seems odd to me that of the 18 people that testified on the downzone, 13 were against it. Despite the opposition, the massive downzone went from the planning commision to approval by the city council in four short months.

Here is a map of the downzoned areas:



According to the ordinance, the reason for the downzone was to align the zoning in those neighborhoods with this policy in the then Comprehensive Plan: "Older neighborhoods which are predominantly single family should be zoned single family to encourage home ownership and rehabilitation."

In terms of how people remember downzones of that era, this checks out. Here is Jim Keogh talking about the Eastside:



The neighborhood stabilized. It became nicer. It also (seemingly) became more expensive. 

Taken from a different perspective, what happened to the Eastside is called gentrification. 

Jim doesn't really go into why this would happen, but it seems like once you stop allowing more residents to move into a neighborhood and make housing the more exclusive, the neighborhood becomes more gentile genteel.

The result of this sort of zoning experiment would be a mystery if we haven't seen it play out on a grand scale across the country. For example, Los Angeles conducted this sort of downzoning writ-large over the same timescale as Olympia:
The city of Los Angeles has tested this theory by downzoning the city to permit fewer dwellings. In 1960, the city was zoned to support 10 million people. By contrast, today the city is zoned to support only 4.3 million people — just slightly more than its current population. So if excluding housing made housing cheaper, Los Angeles land prices would have fallen, causing rents to fall. And yet rents, adjusted for inflation, have risen by 55 percent, while median renter income has grown by only 13 percent. Rather than declining, land prices quintupled, from just over $86,229 per house in 1984 to $483,692 in 2014.
Less access to housing over a finite area leads to a higher cost to access that housing. Seems pretty simple. The purpose and the result of the downzoning in Olympia was the gentrification that we've seen over the last few decades. Rather than allowing the neighborhoods to absorb the growth that was coming, we allowed it to do something totally different.

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.