Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Olympia's failed experiment with single-family zoning

I was not able to make it to the Housing Options hearing with the Planning Commission tonight. But here is what I sent them (and what I planned on saying).

I am asking for you to consider relegalizing housing types that have traditionally been allowed in Olympia.

Up until 1980, housing patterns in Olympia followed a fairly predictable path. For every 1,000 new residents, we would build an average of six 2 to 4 unit buildings. In the early 1980s, that changed. 

Egged on by a multi-year debate over the spread of so-called ghettos in Olympia, the City Council downzoned large portions of the city at several points since 1980. 

Since the downzones, the ratio of duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes dropped from 6 per 1,000 to only 1 per 1,000 new residents.

These downzones included neighborhoods where duplexes and quadplexes had already been built. This set up the ironic situation of it being illegal to replace affordable housing in a downzoned neighborhood but needing to replace it with more expensive single-family housing.

We are now reaping the harvest of these forty-year-old decisions. 

The neighborhoods we have built since the 1980s are car-dependent and not walkable. Instead of allowing the neighborhoods we already built to absorb growth, we have cut down trees, built new roads, and sprawled growth to the edges of our city.

The city we have become since 1980 is not equitable. Olympia is a largely segregated community. According to census data, the more single-family homes there are in a neighborhood, the whiter that neighborhood is. By only allowing more affordable housing types in specific parts of our city, we will continue this segregation.

Allowing low density, multifamily housing is the traditional way we have always grown as a city. We moved away from it because in an era after racial discrimination in housing became illegal, fears of crime and ghettos drove our zoning choices. We used to write racially restrictive covenants, but today we segregate our city with single-family zoning.

The downzones are a textbook example of institutional racism. While the downzones in the 1980s may have been born in a context of racism, I don’t think people who are trying to protect them are racists. But we can clearly see how they have terrible impacts.

We can see clearly that the experiment in exclusive single-family housing has failed. Allowing more housing options in all parts of Olympia is the right thing to do.

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