History, politics, people of Oly WA

Category: Olympia City Council (Page 1 of 9)

Why did denser neighborhoods vote for the Regional Fire Authority?

Yesterday, the detailed precinct-by-precinct data for the recent April 25 election was released, and a certain trend became evident when I mapped out the results. This exercise serves as an essential reminder that even so-called “blowout” elections can have nuances that are crucial to comprehend if we aim to understand our community.

Here are the straightforward results by precinct (and the data I used):

What I see here is fairly straightforward. Downtown Olympia, the apartment complexes on the west and far east sides of Olympia, and likely Tumwater’s most densely populated neighborhoods along Tumwater Hill, all voted in favor of the Regional Fire Authority. On the other hand, the nearby westside and southeast Olympia led the vote against the RFA.

When comparing the approval rates for the public art election last April to the RFA this spring on a map of Olympia (excluding downtown), the same pattern emerges. The far eastside and westside apartment precincts were the only areas in town where the RFA received more votes than the public art proposition.

The turnout maps for the April 2023 vote present a somewhat mixed bag at first glance. On this map, I noticed the high-density neighborhoods that voted for the RFA are represented on both sides of the turnout scale. However, the less dense neighborhoods tend to appear on the higher turnout side.

The pattern becomes even more apparent when focusing solely on the Olympia precincts that took part in the art proposition. In the map below, precincts that turned out more for art last year are depicted in blue, while those that turned out more for fire are in red.

These maps reveal an interesting pattern. In general, precincts that turned out more in favor of the RFA (versus art) tended to vote more in favor of the RFA. This conclusion is supported by the chart below, which demonstrates this trend quite clearly:

Essentially, the precincts that voted against the RFA likely did so because of a general lack of turnout. In those precincts, people may have returned a ballot for the arts, but chose to hold onto their ballots for the fire vote. 

Additionally, I want to revisit the topic of how apartment dwellers voted, as it relates to the messaging of the “Save our Fire Departments” (or No on Prop 1) campaign. The opponents of the RFA highlighted the higher costs that apartment dwellers would pay under the proposed formula to finance the RFA. However, this argument seems to have fallen on deaf ears, possibly due to where the No campaign focused its outreach. It’s worth noting that this argument didn’t resonate with its intended audience, as evidenced by the approval and turnout maps.
Okay, but really, why?
I’ve seen general observations that apartment dwellers fear fire more than people who live in single family homes. And that makes inherent sense, I suppose. But I haven’t found any polling or research that backs this assumption up.

Why I wasn’t born in the City of Lacey

I was raised in what had been, for like a couple of months, the City of Lacey. 

And, by order of the Supreme Court of Washington, is inside the City of Olympia.

My childhood neighborhood, generally Wilson Street between 22nd and 18th, was part of a push and pull between Lacey and Olympia for a few months in the mid-1960s.

Since the end of World War II and the construction of car-centric neighborhoods, Olympia began pushing out from its original 1890 borders. The city had annexed the area around the State/Pacific split in 1930, but paused until after the war to start grabbing small blocks here and there. But, by the 1960s, the unincorporated neighborhoods that had been built further east (collectively “Lacey”) began getting nervous and planning for their own city.

And, what should constitute the future Lacey was pretty broad. In the early days of the planning for the city of Lacey, as early as 1963, the western border of the proposed City of Lacey was Boulevard Road itself, a full 3 miles away from the city’s current boundary.

It was in 1964 when the Olympia City Commission pushed east, annexing along Martin and Pacific Avenue, ending as far as Lilly Road on Martin Way. That effort started the official border war between Lacey and Olympia.

Pro-City residents in Lacey pushed for a vote in August 1964 to incorporate. That vote failed 505 to 857.

The part of Olympia that began Lacey

That same year, the residents of the Boulevard Road area also voted to reject annexation to the City of Olympia.

In 1966, when Lacey was on its way to successfully incorporating, the original fire station on Boulevard Road was actually a Lacey Fire District 3 station. So, it made sense that the “Olympia fringe area” was included in the new city.

When Lacey finally successfully incorporated in November 1966, Olympia quickly struck back. In December, the residents in the western portion of Lacey, stretching from near North Thurston High School down to the south end of Boulevard Road, submitted a petition for incorporation into Olympia.

Now, this is where it gets weird. The city commission received the petition in a closed-door meeting. Using what was later described by Lacey’s lawyers as an archaic law, the city commission scheduled an election that would allow not just the residents of the proposed annexation area to vote, but also the residents of the entire city. So, if the voters of the City of Olympia authorized the annexation of neighborhoods in another city, they were allowed to do so.

Lacey went ahead and scheduled a special election a few weeks later in February 1967 which would have allowed the area to de-annex from Lacey and return to the county. But, when Olympia voters passed their proposal for annexation in January, Lacey dropped their vote and sued to have the results of Olympia’s vote invalidated.

Ad that makes an excellent point about annexation rural areas.

The crux of the lawsuit apparently wasn’t where I grew up, but rather the north end of the annexation area along Martin Way.

The City of Lacey’s case was:
  • The two portions of the annexation area were not contiguous
  • The City of Olympia stacked the deck by not providing enough public notice
The courts, though, disagreed. It was true, the annexation law the City of Olympia was using hadn’t been touched since 1890, and it was still a law. And, they also disagreed on the definition of contiguous. Either way, they left Lacey packing and let stand the massive annexation, and Olympia stretched all the way to College Street.
The state legislature would also step up in 1969 and reform the 70+ year old annexation law that Olympia used to gobble up my family homestead and surrounding property. The new law would lengthen deadlines, to allow for better public notice, and actually make it easier for two small cities to join together.
Which is funny because, already occurring in 1969 was the most interesting part of this entire annexation drama.
In 1969, the cities of Olympia and Lacey would vote to consolidate. 
Before we get too far, the vote failed in both cities. But that there was even a vote exposes just how frail the existence of Lacey was in those early years. The measure was close all over Olympia, failing in 11 of 19 precincts and by fewer than 30 votes overall. 
Even though it failed by a 3 to 1 margin in Lacey, two precincts representing Panorama City voted in favor. So if those areas west of Chambers Lake and south of Pacific Avenue had their choice, Olympia’s annexations of 1964 and 1967 would have gone even further east more uniformly.

What a map of taxes-by-acre in Thurston County teaches us about downtown Olympia

This is a map of election results in Thurston County. It shows a fairly typical result by precinct. More liberal candidates (in this case Joel Hanson in last year’s port race) doing well in the urban core and more conservative candidates (Amy Evans) doing well in rural areas.

This is a map of property taxes by acre on the parcel level in Thurston County:

Generally speaking, these are the same patterns. The same places that tend to vote for more conservative candidates also pay less property taxes per acre. This isn’t exactly a new concept. Strong Towns, for example, pays a lot of attention to this concept of density paying off for local government finances. Their analysis goes even further and connects a simple tax by acre analysis (which I am doing) and brings in the cost of supplying services to low density rural and suburban areas, which is higher than urban, high density neighborhoods.

Here are a few closer looks, to see how the basic property tax by acre phenomena works.

Here is downtown Olympia:

Not only are the vast majority of the parcels blue (relatively high value), there are a lot of dark blue lots (the highest value category). The red areas in downtown Olympia are un-taxed public places like the Port of Olympia, the Capitol Campus and other government owned parcels. They aren’t a good counter-example against the phenomena we’re exploring here, they are just an illustration of the financial impact of being a state capitol.

Zooming out to Olympia overall now:

Lots of lighter blue, and most of the deeper blue is either newer developments or nodes of density around lower density, single-family neighborhoods. 

Now Lacey:

The thing that stands out here to me is the older core of Lacey is mostly lighter blue. 

Now the big map for me, the Rochester/Grand Mound area:

Even though this portion of Thurston County contains a large swath of suburban development on the way to Lewis County, most of the parcels are fairly low value by acre. According to the analyses I linked to above, these areas are more expensive to maintain, but produce less property taxes.
We’re familiar with this concept on a macro scale (donor states and counties), but it is interesting to see how this phenomenon exists on even the micro-neighborhood level. 
And how does this take us back downtown? This is just another example of how the multifamily tax exception is not that bad of an idea, policywise. A little while back, I did a back of the napkin analysis of how in a very short amount of time, the multifamily tax exemption would start paying dividends financially. The logic is that once the exemption is over, the increased value of the taxed parcel would be vastly more than the previously undeveloped version. By my figuring, it would only take seven years for the improved parcel to pay off the money lost in the exemption. And in the long run, it would a massive financial benefit. Allowing the parcel to stay a parking lot would be the actual drain.
What the tax-by-acre parcel map shows is that the talking point of “existing taxpayer subsidizing downtown high-rises” is a falsehood. On any scale, less dense neighborhoods are “paid for” by denser, more productive ones. The majority of existing Olympians (especially the ones that show up to city council to complain about density) live in unproductive single-family neighborhoods. The subsidy goes the other way around. 

Four questions from the last election in map form (Fall 2021 edition)

 1. Did Talauna Reed’s strategy of encouraging voting in high density apartment complexes work? 

2. Why did Reed get a post-primary bounce in SE Olympia?

And, it is more than the bottom line result that she did not win. When I look at the maps, she didn’t move the needle in the neighborhoods with large apartment buildings. I had seen this approach being promoted on social media, and I was incredibly interested to see if it would work (in a winning result) or move the needle (by improving her returns in neighborhoods with more large apartment buildings).

First off, here is the map for her overall vote percentage:

Her best precincts were basically on the Eastside north of the highway and on the near-in Westside. Only one of these precincts (the blue one furthest west) has a collection of larger apartment buildings. 

Since I heard about the approach to focus on larger apartment buildings after the primary, I think looking at the change in raw votes and percentage change would be important. This is especially true since the primary finished very close between Lisa Parshley, Reed and Wendy Carlson. This meant that Carlson’s large number of voters (for someone who didn’t advance) were up for grabs.

First, here is the percentage change:

And here is the raw number of votes change:

And here you might start seeing a pattern with higher turnout with apartment dwellers. On the far Eastside by the hospital and down South of Ken Lake there might be some movement. 

But what is also consistent in these two maps in the handful of SE Olympia precincts where overall Reed did not do well. They also had large movements toward her during the primary to general shift. These are places where Carlson had a lot of votes to give up after she didn’t make it through the primary. And despite not doing well, Reed picked up a fair amount of votes.

3. What is the meaning of the weirdest countywide map I have ever seen?

Eight years ago, I thought I’d seen the weirdest map ever when Sue Gunn won both extremely rural and conservative precincts and urban and liberal precincts. 

For a reference of how a Thurston County results map should look like, look at the Amy Evans/Joel Hanson for Port Commission map. Hanson is in blue, Evans in red.

Here you see the traditional urban to rural way these maps are organized. Hanson does better in the urban center of Olympia, while Evans does better in the rural areas and builds in towards Olympia. The battleground are the suburban belts around Olympia, including Lacey, Tumwater and a bit further out. From this map, you can see Evans won this by limiting Hanson’s precincts to largely inside Olympia.

But, would someone please explain to me this? This is the Bob Iyall (blue) and Jesse Simmons (red) race for Olympia Port Commission: 

As normal, Iyall did do pretty well in the middle of the map. And, if you told me that Iyall did really well in Olympia, but Simmons bossed all of Lacey, I would have said this map was a lot closer than what it was. Here, it seems like it is the rest of the county vs. Lacey. I have never seen a map in Thurston County where a candidate does really well in Lacey and isn’t able to translate that into better results elsewhere in the suburban belt or either in the urban core of Olympia or out in the rural areas.

4. Why did the right lane candidates have such varied success across the map?

I didn’t want to do election results maps for the other city of Olympia races, because they all seemed to follow the same pattern of conservative candidates doing well on the far Westside and SE Olympia  and the eventual winners doing well everywhere else. I did do Reed’s race because as the only one left in the progressive lane, she was unique. 

Well, what I did do was map the precincts won by any or all of the candidates in the right-hand lane. Candi Mercer didn’t win any precincts, so she’s not on this map.

The three remaining (Weigand, Kesler and Gauny) won several precincts in SE Olympia together. Weigand and Kesler then combined to win a couple more on the SE side and on the far Westside (both traditional conservative-for-Olympia territory). Kesler then won two on her own, both on the edges of town. Weigand in blue then picked up the rest of SE Olympia and the far Westside. He also won an inside precinct that includes the East Bay Harbor condominiums. 

What the network graph of campaign contributions tells us about the Olympia City Council races

Over the last few days, I’ve been pulling down Public Disclosure Commission data and putting together a network graph of financial contributions among city council candidates. This illustrates the flow of individual contributions to campaigns and between candidates. This shows, in a broad sense, of how candidates are connected by who is contributing to them. I took some care to clean up the data (so contributors aren’t showing up more than once) but there might be some small errors.


1. There definitely are three primary lanes in the races. Or at least there was before the winnowing of candidates in the August Primary. I’d been using a shorthand to think about candidates running for city council. They were either in the right-hand side, mainline/incumbent or left-hand side lane.

Turns out the contributors thought the same thing. Contributions for all the right-hand side candidates (Mercer, Gauny, Kesler, Weigand and Carlson), mainline (Cooper, Gilman, Huynh, Parshley and Payne ) and left-hand (Wilkinson, Destasio, Reed and Brown) are generally distinct from each other. When there are connections, they are connected through the mainline group. There were a lot of contributors that gave to multiple candidates, but mainly to either the left or right and the mainline. Out of more than 1,200 individual contributors, there was only one that gave to both left and right.

2. The mainline group is much more cohesive than either the left or the right. This makes sense that the middle would be cohesive, most of them serve on the city council now. They’re also contributing to each others’ campaigns. But, the lack of cohesion between the other lanes, when there policy positions seem so well in sync, seems weird. 

This would also explain the mismatched results in the primary. No mainline candidates failed to advance, but only one from the left lane advanced and one from the right failed to advance.

3. Just poke around, see what you find. There are a lot of random things to see in the chart. 

  •  Port of Olympia candidates are spreading their money to candidates on the right and the mainline lanes.
  • There is a contributor that gave to both Payne and Weigand.
  • The “bridging” candidates that hold the most contributors that span lanes are Kesler (right to center) and Gilman (left to right). This shouldn’t surprise me, but it is fun to see it illustrated.

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.

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?

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

Reducing impact fees will be great, but we need to talk about how we built our city

Next week the Olympia City Council will talk about an ordinance that will lower impact fees for affordable housing.

More specifically, the ordinance will lower impact fees for “housing with a monthly housing expense that is
no greater than 30 percent of 80 percent of the median family income.” The idea is that since developers make the most money building high-end housing for people that can afford it, this will create an incentive to build less expensive housing for those who can’t.

But in the short term, I think we should pull back and take a look at impact fees in general and what kind of housing this ordinance is likely to encourage.

First though, let’s say that impact fees are a one time fee for initial impacts that a new house will have on Olympia. Things like new roads, new parks, new schools are paid for out of these fees. But, long-term maintenance of these public assets come out of property taxes that end up being paid on the value of each home. So, while the initial burden of new homes can be blunted by impact fees, long term maintenance is everyone’s problem. And, that is when we get into choosing what kind of housing we choose to build.

Up until very recently, most of Olympia was locked into single family home only zoning. Now, more neighborhoods are open for what is called Missing Middle housing types, like duplexes, townhomes, etc. And, a lot of people are connecting this impact fee proposal to the Missing Middle proposal. Larry Dzieza’s post on Nextdoor about the cut in impact fees is even called “Missing Middle Tax/Fee Cut for Developers.”

What people aren’t talking about is that so-called Missing Middle development leads to higher valued properties, which leads to more taxable value for the city in the long run.

Here is how that works.

Generally, downtown Olympia is pretty valuable to the city and produces a lot of tax revenue (here and here). This is generally because the auto-centered suburban development style just isn’t as valuable.

Let’s get to another good example of how this is working in Olympia. Take this block of densely packed housing along Jefferson:

This isn’t likely anyone’s favorite place in Olympia, it sits on a stretch of Jefferson that has train tracks and is just a good example of what kind of housing we used to build downtown. At at just less than 10 percent of an acre it is valued at $2,661,538.46 per acre. When you look at the map, you can see it isn’t even out of the neighborhood in terms of value per acre.

Let’s go a few miles south on 37th Street, south of Olympia High School a block or so. This is a neighborhood of single family homes in a neighborhood with no sidewalks, and though it is walking distance to two schools and a couple of churches, isn’t really what anyone would consider walkable in general.

And, these four house, clocking in at just over an acre, are valued at 1,617,475.73 per acre.

And, looking at this map, you see very similar values per acre among the neighbors.

Another way to look at it is to think about what value is being lost to the city of Olympia by sea level rise. Downtown Olympia by 2095 (if we don’t do anything) will lost about 370 acres and about $600,491,269 in total value. The land in low lying Olympia is valued at $1,631,769.75 per acre, Compared to the value of the land outside the inundation zone at $494,018.11.
So, coming back to the finances of the city. In the short run, we want more walkable neighborhoods filled with affordable housing of various sizes and types. So, we want to cut impact fees to help this happen. Single family housing is more expensive to the consumer (even using the data provided by opponents of the Missing Middle). But, because high density housing uses the land more efficiently, it ends up providing more taxes to the city itself, blunting the need for impact fees anyway.

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:


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.

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