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.

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