History, politics, people of Oly WA

Category: downzone (Page 1 of 2)

How our history of downzoning is an argument against “local control” in the legislature and has huge impacts on racial discrimination in housing


Eastside Olympia in the midst of large downzone.

As the legislature discusses zoning reform that would allow for modest density increases in exclusionary singe family neighborhoods, it is important to focus on the history of so-called “local control.”

The ability for local governments to determine their own zoning fate has become the primary argument against statewide zoning reform. But the history of neighborhood and city-scale decision-making (aka “local control) puts a sharp focus on housing discrimination and how we’ve excluded people from our communities.

When we discuss racist housing discrimination in the Northwest, we talk about racially restrictive covenants that flourished through the 50s and redlining during the 30s. We skip past the successful whisper campaign that sunk Seattle’s first attempt at an open housing ordinance in the mid-1960s, and head straight towards the Fair Housing Act and the state and local versions of the same law.

After that, our history tells us, housing discrimination has been against the law, and we’ve been slowly bending towards justice. Leftovers like exclusionary single family zoning are artifacts of time before the 1960s civil rights campaigns and are the high hanging fruit after years of struggle.

But when I think about housing discrimination in the Pacific Northwest, I usually start with the 1970s. That is when you see the term “downzone” show up in our regional press. Before that time, there was no single word for taking a neighborhood that was zoned for a mix of densities and only allowing single family zoning.

In response to the outlawing of outright housing discrimination, local governments turned to tools like downzoning to restrict growth and prevent the continued construction of housing that would be affordable across incomes. Exclusive single-family zoning began replacing higher density zoning across the region.

This era of downzoning after the Fair Housing Act begs for more historic understanding. As a community historian, I am most familiar with downzoning efforts in Olympia from the late 1970s to the 1990s. But in a cursory look at other western Washington communities, you can see the same pattern. I can trace stories of Individual neighborhoods starting in the 1970s lobbying for downzones from high density to middle density and any middle density options being chased out of neighborhoods in exchange for single family zoning.

I have done a fairly deep dive into the Olympia history of downzoning, which I’ve written about here. But with the debate over local control in the legislature, there is a need for a deeper understanding of how our communities reacted to the passing of strict housing discrimination laws and why so many decided to push to decrease densities.

There is a classic example on Queen Anne Hill where neighbors fought to downzone in the early 70s. Throughout the 1950s, the City of Seattle planned higher and higher densities in neighborhoods around downtown, including Queen Anne Hill. Just months after Seattle’s open housing ordinance went into effect, Queen Ann neighbors were at city hall, fighting for fewer neighbors to come to their streets.

In Olympia, the downzoning battle began on the Eastside in what is now one of the most exclusive single family neighborhoods. A developer proposed a series of fourplexes, but ended up igniting years of struggle, which resulted in a citywide reassessment of high and middle density housing. A few years later, neighbors of another inner, Eastside neighborhood, fought to further downzone their part of town to “stabilize” the neighborhood.

You can see similar examples across the country of communities picking up downzoning as a tool to implicitly preserve racial divisions when other methods became illegal. Arlington, MA (a Boston suburb) wrote its own history of downzoning, pointing out that before the 1960s, they zoned for plenty of apartments. But, according to a city-written FAQ: “…as segregation in greater Boston was challenged and integration became a real prospect across the region, Arlington’s attitude toward development shifted. Concerted opposition to development projects began in the 1960s and became more organized in the early 1970s. Activists used both explicit and coded anti-integration language to rally opposition to apartment development and the related effort to downzone portions of the town.”

Unlike earlier efforts in the Pacific Northwest, other than coded references to “ghettos,” our downzoning efforts are largely absent of on the surface racial animus. I’m not saying that these neighborhood activists weren’t trying to keep their neighborhoods white. In fact, I think you can draw a pretty clear conclusion to what many of them were up to. I’m just saying there isn’t anything clear in the historical record.

What I am saying is that you don’t have to look very far to see downzoning in the Pacific Northwest tied directly to the broader civil rights struggle. When you pull back out from these small-scale, downzoning efforts to a nationwide view, you see single family zoning being discussed in a much different way. When Pacific Northwest communities were downzoning, the NAACP was struggling to find inroads in the courtrooms to fight against exclusionary single family zoning.

HUD Secretary George Romney (and former Michigan governor) went to Warren, Michigan in 1970 to attempt to force the Detroit suburb to strike single family zoning and allow smaller, more affordable (and therefore affordable to racial minorities). His effort failed, his political career ended, and the civil rights organizations retrenched and fought unheralded courtroom battles over single family zoning in the Midwest, the South and the East Coast.

According to the NAACP, in the early 70s: the suburbs are “the new civil rights battleground” and we should do battle out in the townships and villages to lower zoning barriers and thereby create opportunities for Negroes seeking housing closer to today’s jobs at prices they can afford and pay.”

National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing (also in the early 1970s): segregation won’t stop until “local governments have been deprived of the power… to manipulate zoning and other controls to screen out families on the basis of income and, implicitly, of race.”

What we can say for sure, that our decreasing densities through downzones had very real impacts on the racial makeup of our neighborhoods.

In Seattle, the end result of five decades of downzoning is white-majority neighborhoods expanding across the city. One collection of blocks in the Leschi neighborhood went from over 90 percent black in the 1970s to 11 percent black today. The black population of King County was pushed south and out of Seattle as the white residents in downzoned neighborhoods looked for housing further and further south.

In Olympia (that never had a substantial racially diverse neighborhood like Seattle) neighborhoods that downzoned saw a smaller increase in racial diversity over the last 10 years. Not only did these neighborhoods stay whiter, in the middle of a historic housing crisis, these neighborhoods actually had fewer people living in them in 2020 than they did in 2010.

There are few open racists left. That is obviously an advancement in my lifetime.

You don’t have to be racist to benefit from racist outcomes and a racist system. There is a huge layer of people who will tell you they are not racist but participate in racist systems before you get to people working to dismantle racist systems.

We know the current landscape of dominant, exclusionary single family zoning in our region happened at the same time the last tools to legally and openly discriminate in housing were taken away. We also know the nation’s leading civil rights organization has actively worked against exclusionary single family zoning.

Our history is not at all unique, but we should keep in mind as the legislature takes another attempt at creating a minimum zoning standard for Washington State. Local control is the tool that low density neighborhoods used for five decades to sustain racially discriminatory impacts of city-scale zoning.

Where Olympia has become less black in the past 10 years

 Last month I put up a couple of posts featuring maps that explore population growth in Olympia over the last decade.

The first map showed the uneven distribution of population growth across the city. The second map took a look at the change in the percentage of white people in the last ten years on the neighborhood level. 

I was thinking about the second map today and realized I may have done a disservice by using change in white population to properly illustrate change in race. It is true, Olympia overall has gotten more diverse in the last 10 years. The white population has barely budged from 38,000 (around 82 percent in 2010) to around 39,000 (75 percent in 2020). At the same time, the black population has increased from 931 (2 percent) to 1,340 (3 percent).

But it is important to note where that population increase has occurred. In fact, in some neighborhoods, the black population has decreased in the past 10 years, while the black population citywide has increased.

The most growth seems to be in neighborhoods I’ve discussed before. For example, I am not surprised at all that block group 105.1 (the blue section in the bottom left of the Westside) showed a large increase in percentage of black residents. The far Eastside near St. Peter’s also doesn’t surprise me.

All the neighborhoods marked in red saw a decrease in black population. These neighborhoods follow the same trend as the previous map on population growth. The neighborhoods that didn’t grow in the past 10 years also saw a decline in black population.

Again, there are outliers, but the relationship between the population increase in neighborhoods and the change in the number of black people living there is real. Here is population change charted against change in black population as a percentage:

2020 marked the close of the last decade of a long-term experiment we played in Olympia. We closed off growth in many Olympia neighborhoods beginning in the 1980s by systematically downzoning predominantly older, single-famly home neighborhoods. This was to prevent the spread of multi-family housing and the creation of “ghettos.” The Housing Options Plan passed right after the census data was collected largely reversed these downzones city-wide. 

You can find my data sources in the posts below. Here is my crosswalk file for this map.

Where Olympia didn’t grow (and even lost population) in the last 10 years (this time with census data!)

Olympia’s neighborhoods saw varying patterns of population growth and contraction over the past 10 years.
Olympia grew by almost 10,000 residents and Thurston County as a whole grew by over 40,000 in the 2010s. Obviously, population growth is not evenly spread across the county. But it is amazing to see that while the population of our community grows, there are neighborhoods so walled off by exclusive zoning, that they were able to fend off this growth.
I’m convinced that the slow and declining growth in population in these neighborhoods is the on-the-ground impact of exclusive single-family zoning. After years of work, Olympia finally passed zoning rules at the end of the decade that ended this kind of zoning.
You can see below that the story isn’t nearly as simple as “single family neighborhoods shank/didn’t grow and multifamily neighborhoods grew.” The 2010s did seem to serve as a natural experiment of what the long-term impacts this zoning had on neighborhoods.
Olympia started clamping down on neighborhood multifamily housing (like duplexes and cottage apartments) in the late 1970s. The 2010s were the fourth decade of this kind of enforced low density, and the recently released census data gives us a way to examine its impacts.
Here is the map I ended up with:
Here is what I take away from this map:
1. The vast majority of Olympia grew very little. I colored block groups that didn’t increase more than 100 people in yellow. And, these block groups make up most of this map. While these areas did grow, it is worth noting that they did not grow very much.
2. The neighborhoods that shrank were a mix of housing types. Especially, the two block groups on the Westside include a significant number of apartments. It is worth noting that the apartments and other multifamily zoning there are older structures.
3. Except for downtown, all of Olympia’s growth happened on the edges. For a few block groups, especially on the far east edge of Olympia and on the Westside along 101, this is where a significant number of new apartment buildings are being built. While a lot of attention has been paid to multifamily housing downtown (which has brought in new residents), the real driver of Olympia’s new population are less flashy apartments along the edges.
I wrote more about the apartments being built on the Westside last year, illustrating how multifamily housing on the edges of Olympia are driving racial segregation.
A few notes on how I did this work:
  • I did a similar examination a couple of years ago using American Community Survey data. While I found similar shrinking neighborhoods then too, the ACS data is an extrapolation of survey data, and is less precise than the census headcount.
  • Block groups are just about the narrowest geography you can assess changes in population change across Olympia. I had to cross-walk a few block groups that had broken in smaller pieces. I posted my notes on that in this spreadsheet.
  • The data and shape files are the OFM datasets of the recent census release.
  • Because I did the cross-walk, the geographies I mapped were the 2010 block groups, since I combined the 2020 block groups.
  • The block groups I picked do not line up with the borders of the city exactly. In places where I had to choose, I chose to go over the border of the city.

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.

Tract 105 in Olympia. Or a story of how the nodes argument of density is racist

Last week I wrote about how on the macro-level, Olympia’s neighborhoods are racially segregated along density lines. The more single-family homes in a neighborhood, the higher percentage of white people that live there. And now I’ve found an example of how adding high-density housing in one neighborhood, and preserving single-family housing in the neighborhood next door, has a predictable impact on racial make-up.

Up until the 2010 Census, Tract 105 on Olympia’s westside was one tract. But, since then it has been split into two tracts, 105.10 on the west and 105.20 on the east.

The two new tracts are split by Black Lake Boulevard. They range from the older residential neighborhood on a bluff over Capitol Lake to newer neighborhoods around Capital Medical Center and Yauger Park.

And, their journeys since their 2010 schism show how our current housing policy, especially the “nodes” approach, results in more white, single-family neighborhoods. While our intention hasn’t been to create zoning that segregates on racial lines, that is what we’ve done.
The nodes approach to growth and density argues that we should build extremely high density near Capital Mall, the far Eastside and downtown. Then we won’t have to allow for more reasonable increased density in exclusive single-family neighborhoods.
105.20 has been fairly static for the last 10 years in terms of available housing. It includes many older, largely single-family blocks. Before the 1980s, these blocks would have slowly densified as older single-family houses were replaced by duplexes, quadplexes, and small apartment buildings. This was the trend that was stopped forty years ago when we downzoned many near-downtown residential neighborhoods. 
105.10 started the decade as a mostly commercial tract with a mobile home park and a few apartment buildings. Also, several undeveloped green zones. Since then, it has added a couple of new apartment complexes along either side of Capital Mall Boulevard where trees once stood.
A major portion of 105.1 in 2010:
Both tracts also began the decade in significantly different spots, racially speaking. 105.20 was comprised of just a hair less than 80 percent white people, a lower percentage than a city on the whole. 105.1 started as an extremely white neighborhood, clocking in at almost 94 percent. 

105.1 total 105.1 % white 105.1 white 105.1 nonwhite 105.2 total 105.2 % white 105.2 white 105.2 nonwhite
2010 1447 93.99% 1360 87 5853 79.57% 4657 1196
2017 1887 81.40% 1536 351 6547 85.75% 5614 933
Change 440 -12.59% 176 264 694 6.18% 957 -263

Since then, they’ve gone in completely different directions. 105.1 became strikingly more diverse in seven years, with its white population dropping to 81 percent. 105.2 went in the opposite direction, with its white population growing to almost 86 percent.
It looks even worse for 105.2 when you look at the raw numbers. The total number of non-white people living in 105.2 dropped by over 200 people between 2010 and 2017. At the same time, 150.1 went up by almost the same amount. 
This has all happened as Olympia as a whole has slowly become more diverse, going from 85 percent white in 2000 to 83.6 percent white in 2010 to 82.5 percent white in 2017.
One neighborhood built high-density housing (in a node) and became less white. The other followed the node approach by protect existing single-family homes and became more white.
It is also worth noting, that while 105.2 got whiter in the last decade, it also includes a significantly sized apartment complexes. These are mostly concentrated along Black Lake Boulevard and Evergreen Park Drive. But, if you look back at the block-by-block data available from the 2010 Census, you see a stark racial breakdown even within 105.2.
The blocks zoned single-family are much more likely to be whiter.
From JusticeMap, darker blocks are more white:
From Thurston Geodata, the red are single-family homes:
And further south:
The further you get in the single-family home portions of 105.2, but especially north of 9th Avenue, the more likely blocks are going to be white.
So, if you got this far, it’s clear that as we build denser housing outside of single-family neighborhoods (and in an environmental lense, in what used to be a forest), we are also keeping single-family neighborhoods white.

There is no law in Olympia that some neighborhoods are reserved for white people. But, by focussing building higher density housing outside of these exclusive single-family zones, this is what we’re doing. This is the current “nodes” strategy, or has some have called it “density done right.”
And, this is the intention vs. impact this when we talk about racism (here and here). 
I think it’s helpful to quote Rachel Cargle here in her frame on racism:

Recognize that even when your good intentions are truly good, that’s totally meaningless. Try this on for size: when you accidentally step on somebody else’s foot, you do not make your good intentions the focus of the episode. Instead, you check to make sure the other person is OK, you apologize, and you watch where you’re going. You don’t get annoyed with the person you stepped on because you caused her pain or declare that she is too sensitive or defend yourself by explaining that you meant to step to the left of her foot… But I’m a nice person does not cancel out the fact that you’ve silenced, marginalized or used your privilege to further disenfranchise black and brown people, whether you intended to do it or not.

We don’t build neighborhoods with racially exclusive covenants (but we did once). There is nothing in our Comprehensive Plan that says it’s our intention to build super white neighborhoods. But by not allowing even modest high-density housing throughout our city, we are doing a lot of damage.
Building more affordable housing types (literally anything other than single-family homes) would allow a more diverse population to grow. And, in conclusion, I’m just going to leave this here: being able to live in a walkable, liveable (non-node) neighborhood is good for everyone.

Zoning and race in Olympia, WA

Last November I posted about the history of race and housing in Olympia. I tracked local ordinances to outlaw racial discrimination in housing. I also wrote about some housing developments that have racially-based covenants. 

One of the things I noticed in these racially-restrictive covenants is that they always came with another requirement, that the neighborhood also be exclusively single-family homes. Not every restrictive covenant I found had a racial component, but every one with a racial component also required single-family homes. 
In fact, in Strattford Place near where I live, they put the single-family requirement at the top of the list:
Thankfully, racially restrictive covenants are illegal. But, since the 1930s (when racially restrictive covenants were en vogue in Thurston County) single-family zoning has increased in popularity. 
Over the years, we have created zoning laws that restrict housing to (largely) only one type: single-family homes. I want to back up and reiterate this point. In the past, housing in Olympia was much more diverse. But, in the 1970s and 80s, we downzoned much of the city to outlaw anything that wasn’t a single-family home.
So, think about this next phase in three steps:
  • We build much of our city in the most expensive housing type.
  • Single-family homes are the most expensive housing type. Do I need to give you a link to back that up?
  • And, in the Pacific Northwest, income is a proxy for race.
So, what happens when you compare race with housing type in Olympia?
This may seem obvious, but the more single-family homes there are in a neighborhood in Olympia, the whiter that neighborhood is. 

Here is my spreadsheet. I took the date from the American Community Survey, specifically tables B25024 and B02001.
Olympia is a massively white city that is slowly growing more diverse over time. But even as the city grows, the white population is concentrated in largely single-family neighborhoods.
Recently, we have tried to allow for more housing types (like duplexes, quadplexes or small apartment buildings) in white, single-family neighborhoods. Fighting these policies is the same thing as saying you would like to preserve the racial nature of single-family neighborhoods.

Olympia housing post in two parts: Answering a question on Ron Rants and asking a question on Samuel Stein

Both of these came up at the same time, so I’m doing them in one post.

1. Answering Steve Salmi’s question here first:

…Dan Leahy was right to “follow the money” regarding tax breaks for developers – including Ron Rants. Olympia would do well to display greater transparency in its decision making if it wishes to build the credibility of Missing Middle initiatives. 

For the sake of historical honesty, it would also be helpful to know if Ron Rants is now being subsidized to undo the very problems he helped to create – both as an elected official and a development industry leader.

On the first go around on this post, I actually noticed a few places where Ron Rants, in fact, sounded like a 2010s era urbanist.

First from May 1980:

Fellow commissioner Ron Rants said the existing policy didn’t mesh with his personal view. The city should be encouraging mixed housing, he remarked. Mix housing includes having duplexes in single-family neighborhoods.

Then in September 1980:

Rants said the city, in fact, should encourage denser living patterns within city limits, to put an end to what he called rapid leap-frog growth to the county.

I will say that Steve’s point that the city commission, which was on its way out in the early 80s, was certainly the body that laid the groundwork for a series of downzoning in the 80s and 90s, they didn’t seem to be enthusiastic about putting on the density brakes. In fact, to me, it seems like the same populist dynamics that put in the city council form of government where the same dynamics that were also arguing for exclusive single-family zoning throughout the city.

2. In the past few months, the opponents of denser and less expensive housing in Olympia have started using Sam Stein’s “Capital City” like a cudgel. Without really explaining how Stein’s arguments about how the modern real estate industry works in regards to single-family zoning, they simply state that more options for buildings (for-profit, non-profit or government) would just allow for more building and builders are bad.

While this behavior does fall into the broader “why NIMBYs just hate developers” thing, it doesn’t really center Stein’s arguments in Olympia’s history of downzoning. I poked around Stein’s book for discussion on downzoning on a broader scale, like what happened in Olympia or Los Angeles in the last 50 years. 

A historic district, a contextual rezoning––which means changing the zoning rules to match what’s there right now––or a downzoning, which means in the future people will only be able to build smaller than what’s here right now. So it wasn’t even, I said neighborhood before, but it’s really block by block, block by block by race, so white blocks––predominantly white blocks––got protected, predominantly African American, Latino, and Asian blocks were subject to big, new development. And so, the result of that ends up looking like integration. If you look at those prior, mostly Black, Latino, and Asian blocks, and you see there was this luxury development that was built and suddenly all these white people moved in, now something else is happening. But at the same time, they cut off the ability to build out low-income and mixed-race development on those white blocks. And so, they were channeling integration in one way and cutting it off in the other. It’s like a one-way street that’s going––there’s a one way street and you’re moving in the wrong direction. If we want to do integration, we need to unsegregate those white spaces. The problem is not the concentration of people of color in neighborhoods that they built up over a long period of segregation and disinvestment. So that in many cities the integration that’s happening is the exact wrong way to do it.

In context to Olympia and the Northwest, this brings up a few things for me.

One, we’ve seen how the debate over changing single-family neighborhoods into “ghettos” has affected the course of Olympia housing policy. Calling people racists in historic terms is not fun, but I’m just going to leave that there.

Two, people who trot out Stein are also unironically talking about “nodes” of high-density growth in Olympia. There are places where added density that could take place in single-family neighborhoods should more appropriately go. And, unsurprisingly, when you poke around a block group map of white distribution around Olympia, places with a lot of apartments (existing “nodes”) also have the fewest white people.

So, to my question: how is Stein’s discussion of protecting white neighborhoods not like what happened and is happening in Olympia?

How much did cutting the middle out of our housing stock cost Olympia in the last forty years?

Or, Olympia’s spreading tax-subsidized single-family neighborhoods. 

I’ve pointed to this chart oftentimes as an illustration of how we changed directions back in the 1980s.

I’ve recently been rethinking this graph, mostly due to new perspectives on a fairly old policy tool to encourage apartment construction in downtown Olympia. Dan Leahy has been writing in Works in Progress about the multi-family tax exemption and how the rest of us are subsidizing new construction downtown.

While the discussion around the multi-family exemption does not reveal anything new (someone pays taxes if someone else is exempt), it does give a new ax to grind to people who would rather stay the course with how Olympia has been developing in the last forty years. Car-dominated suburban developments get a pass, while any sort of development downtown that is not a parking lot is given a side-eye or actually challenged legally.

But, the discussion did open an opportunity to examine how exactly our spreading suburban development pattern has cost the city’s bottom line.

As a background, I used the Thurston County Assessor’s parcel data provided by Geodata. This dataset gave me locations and construction dates (important for that chart), but also lot sizes and total values.

Also, I wanted to point out that only in the broadest sense am I talking about “denser” housing. Leahy is mostly discussing downtown Olympia apartment buildings, while I’m discussing anything from a duplex to a quadplex. While we oftentimes conflate these when we discuss housing and zoning, I want to make sure we know I’m talking about different types of housing. 

Now, let’s get to the data!

At some point in the early 1980s, the construction of duplex to quadplex sized homes became disconnected from population. I chose 1981 as my splitting point because it seemed to make sense to me.

Between 1960 and 1981 Olympia averaged 6.2 two to four-unit buildings per thousand of population increase.

After 1981, that rate fell to 1.23 units per thousand new residents. Building non-apartment/non-single family home dwellings went through the floor after the early 80s.

What happened in the early 1980s? Go back and see the policy changes we made to favor single-family homes and the hateful political ecosystem that created it.

And because we know how many people have either been born or moved here, we can calculate how many du/tri/quadplexes we lost because we changed the rules. If we built at the same rate we did before 1981, we would have built 723 more du/tri/quadplexes. We currently have 786.

That on its own is shocking. That means we outlawed between 1,500 and 3,000 living spaces since the early 80s. If we continued building duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes in Olympia, we would have nearly doubled the number of these more affordable units.

But, let us not stop there, this is about the public subsidy, not affordable homes removed from the market by bad laws. Because we know how much single-family home properties are worth and how much du/tri/quadplexes are also worth, we can calculate roughly how much each type pays per acre.

It should surprise no one, but the more dense housing types subsidize single-family homes.

Du/tri/quadplexes cover just over 216 acres of Olympia and they are valued at an average of $1,159,413 per acre.

Single-family homes cover over 4,528 acres of the city and those are valued at an average of $1,035,155 per acre.

This is not taking into consideration the added value du/tri/quadplexes would have brought to single-family homes.

So, when you lay out what we lost (at least 1,446 affordable units) against their higher value, you can get an idea of what our historic single-family home favoring policies has cost our city.

Doing a back of the napkin calculation based on last year’s levy rate, the lost taxes (not just to the city, but to everyone who collects property tax in the city) was $3 million per year.

To put this into perspective, in his post that I linked to above, Dan Leahy points out that across of all the multi-family exemption projects, the loss in total government revenue is $3.4 million over eight years.

What we lose per year because we made a decision forty years ago to favor single-family homes is the same amount we lose over eight years for encouraging more dense development. This calculus also ignores the higher tax receipts that an apartment building will produce as opposed to a parking lot once the exemption is over. And, also (obviously) that the tax exemption is temporary, while single-family zoning is a bit harder to budge.

Ghettos and lost quadplexes at Nut Tree Loop: Our conversations 40 years ago around multifamily housing and how we got here

If you go up Eastside Street from downtown, it will eventually curve to the east and become 22nd Avenue. As 22nd Avenue approaches Boulevard, there is a small neighborhood on the left-hand side of the road called Nut Tree Loop.

This area around 22nd, Cain Road and Boulevard was the neighborhood I grew up in. I was born in 1976, so in my mind’s eye, I kind of remember Nut Tree Loop being built in the late 70s. And, I’ve always thought about it as a much nicer neighborhood surrounded by blocks of split-level ranch homes and older craftsmen. I think if you take a walk through Nut Tree now, that impression by Kid Emmett still holds true. Two homes recently sold in there for over $700,000 (in 2017) and $800,000 (last May).

So then, I was startled to find out when Dan Beuhler first envisioned Nut Tree Loop in 1976, he sketched out a neighborhood of 21 fourplexes “across one section of landscaped grounds.” Beuhler had already built a smaller development of apartments around the corner from Nut Tree. At the time called Eidleweiss, they are currently known at the Chateau Townhomes.

 Where 40 or so nicer single-family homes now sit, 84 multi-family units would have been built, if Beuhler got his way. But instead, the Nut Tree fourplexes kicked off several years of debate in Olympia around multi-family housing, the results of which are still felt today.

And the nature of those conversations tells us a lot about why Olympia shut down the development of smaller multi-family housing since the 1980s.

I’ve written about this period of history in Olympia before. First I tracked the sharp decline in small multifamily housing in Olympia since an explosion in the mid-70s. Second, I took a look at zoning maps since the 1960s to the current day and found a declining area that allowed anything but single-family homes. Lastly, I charted the sprawl of single-family homes that resulted since Olympia downzoned.

In this look, I want to explore how we were talking about the change in the city that at one point allowed duplexes and small apartments and then outlawed them.

Beuhler’s proposal set off a series of contentious public meetings where the city planning commission (on which Beuhler inexplicably sat)  decided the fate of the Nut Tree quadplexes. Over 500 individual Olympian’s testified to the city planning commission and the city commission itself (Olympia was not yet governed by a city council).

Times were tense when the city commission finally took up the Nut Tree fourplexes. When one city commissioner pointed out that in the late 70s incomes were not increasing at the same rate as the price of a single-family home and therefore it made sense to allow for denser, more affordable options in new construction, an audience member shouted: “Why don’t you move to New York?”

New York in the 1970s not necessarily being an example of a humming urban community. This fear of the urban, the denser and poorer community coming into newer single-family neighborhoods underlined the public debate around Nut Tree. While most of the top-line conversation was simply about the power of zoning and the expectations of homeowners that their newer neighbors would have the same zoning, when you dug down, you go the fear of the urban.

Facing that level of fire over one development was not something the city commission had experienced before, and they quickly put the Nut Tree quadplexes on the shelf.

After Nut Tree Loop, the city took a step back and began to examine multifamily housing across the city. The Citizen’s Multi-Family Housing Taskforce began meeting in January 1978 and worked throughout the spring and summer to deliver a zoning package to the city council.

But, like Nut Tree along 22nd, this proposal met with fierce opposition across the city.

As the city considered a plan that would expand multifamily housing throughout the city (even further than the citizen’s taskforce had intended), an unsigned editorial in the Olympian captured the mood of those opposed to denser housing: It isn’t our job to look after anyone but families and experts that disagree with us are bad.

Those who participated in seven months of hearings by the task force evidently want nothing of the philosophy that holds a community responsible for providing the kinds mixed housing needed by today’s mixed lifestyles — the singles, the elderly and the divorced for instance. 

The planners are coming at the problem as theoreticians, as we see it, and they’re not handling the grassroots thinking very well at all… The latest effort to insert recommendations into a citizens report had too much of the smell of “we know what’s best for you” thinking about it.

The commission approved plans that would, on the one hand, allow multi-family housing, but, on the other, only after it was approved on a case-by-case basis. Even then, the economic class of the folks sitting on the Task Force was brought up.

From the city commission minutes in August 1978:

Paul Sparks said his concern is that we would be isolating the lower income families to certain areas away from services and from the city center. The people who are most affected by (the multi-family plan) were not involved on the Task Force. 

Two unidentified women then entered into a heated discussion about the makeup of the Task Force, one asking how come low income people had not been considered and involved; the other replying the Planning Commission has asked for volunteers to serve on the Task Force and all this was in the papers and the radio.

The city commission passed a version of the Task Force recommendations, but they failed to turn on the spigot of multi-family housing.

By 1980, the planning commission had again passed a package that would expand multi-family housing across the city.  The idea would have been in the early 80s to allow multifamily housing in all areas of Olympia, essentially banning single-family zoning.

And, again the residents of single-family neighborhoods stood up.

Multi-family housing in otherwise single-family neighborhoods will foster “the diverse kind of community that makes this community interesting and makes it rich,” (Raven Lidman) said.  

She said when it comes to the good points of living in single-family neighborhoods, “tenants have those same desires.” 

But Virginia Baxter, speaking after Lidman, said “The existing inviting neighborhoods will be destroyed, and there will be an exodus of homeowners” if multi-family housing comes to neighborhoods. 


But Susan Hirst, protesting the proposal, said that multi-family renters will not gain much by being located inside single-family neighborhoods. 

They will still be living in apartments, she said, and “you will simply be placing them into a neighborhood where other people have” the style of life the renters want.

But you have to look no further than Bill Grout to find the dark corner of the urbanism discussion in 1980 Olympia. In one article on the 1980 multi-family plan:

“You have increased police activity, increased crime, increased vandalism,” with multi-family housing, said Bill Grout.

Later that summer, as the city commission itself considered the plan, Grout crossed swords with a county leader in a discussion that might as well come out of our current conversation about Missing Middle housing:

Bill Grout, who said he represents Olympia’s homeowners, labeled the proposal one which “would turn Olympia into a ghetto.”  


(County Commissioner George Barner) said the measure would build up the dwindling rental housing market and would enable low income and young persons to afford a place to live. 

He said such housing should be encouraged in the urban areas because most conveniences are located there. He added it would also prevent urban housing sprawl. 

Grout contradicted Barner, saying out that multi-family housing would drive down property values in single-family residential areas because renters generally do not take care of their property.

And, so the city turned the proposal down. Not actually turned it down, but rather just put it back on the shelf. A year later the city would approve a townhome ordinance that would allow a certain kind of multifamily housing throughout the city, though one that seemingly favored homeowners.

But, the time of multi-family housing tracking with population increase was over. Olympia would go through several incremental downzones to tighten up single-family zoning areas through the 80s and 90s

We used to tear down houses to build more houses. Until we didn’t

The most telling passage for me in this incredibly bad attempted takedown of sensible housing proposals in Olympia was this:

If you live in one of the older, near-town Olympia neighborhoods, big changes are looming for your neighborhood.

The way Jay Elder presents this is if to imply that this threat to older homes near the center of a city is new. That developers are just now getting around to licking their chops on older homes, after having developed all the old farms and ranches outside town. 
But in fact this is the opposite of what has always happened in Olympia. It has only been in the last few decades that “older, near town Olympia neighborhoods” have been protected from development pressures. I’ve written about the history of downzoning in Olympia. This is the process of taking what used to be areas zoned for higher density and putting it into a lower density. These processes in the late 70s through the 90s specifically protected near-town Olympia neighborhoods.
What happened after these downzones was that new housing was placed in areas that didn’t already have housing, such as old farms and ranches and forests. We protected older neighborhoods, we sprawled.
But, it hasn’t always been this way. It used to be in Olympia that as our city grew, we traded lower density, single family blocks for higher density blocks. This process has been going on for so long that some of these higher density blocks are now considered historic themselves.
The Weidner Auto Court on the north end of downtown is a great example of this process. The then hotel was built in 1929 on the site of a handful of single family homes. You can see these homes in an overlay of the 1924 Sanborn map:

One of the houses that we lost to what is now an apartment building belonged to Louis Ouellette. I can’t find a picture of that particular house, but the man himself seemed pretty impressive. He was the surveyor general for the county and he founded the Puget Sound and Chehalis Railway. Not no one but also not someone whose house was saved when it was time to change. 
I cant’t even find a photo of the Ouellette house online anywhere. When people think of old tragedies, houses and places we’ve lost (like the myth of I-5 destroying downtown Tumwater), I don’t hear people pining for the Oullette house. And now we look at the the auto court building itself as something historic that needs to be preserved.
My favorite example is the Columbia Manor Apartments one block over. In this overlay of that block you see a much larger home on the site of the 1939 apartments:

This was the Gowley house, which at at moment in history, was a historic home. It was an unofficial governor’s mansion, Gowley himself was an important statewide leader, his wife was a “Mercer girl” and he died oversees where he was serving as the consul general to Japan.

It was also an impressive looking house. From the Washington State Historical Society:

Any of those things would have qualified it to be saved today. But, in 1939 the house was gone (no one really knows the circumstances of its razing) and now we have 10 apartments for 10 families when once we had one house for one (wealthy) family.

When we freeze neighborhoods in time, when we throw around words like “established” to prevent opportunities for more housing for more families, we don’t allow our city to move forward. It is also deliberate ignorance of how our city has always developed. Nearby, lower density neighborhoods used to always get more dense.

We already know that “tear-downs” are happening in Olympia and Thurston County. But instead of being replaced by higher density developments in the past, we’re replacing older, more affordable single family homes with newer, more expensive, single family homes:

The single largest category of tear-downs in this analysis (which also includes Lacey and Tumwater) were single family homes replaced by newer single family homes. Older homes are going to get rebuilt by someone, someday. We might as well follow the traditional way of allowing older, closer in neighborhoods to become more dense.
« Older posts

© 2024 Olympia Time

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑