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?