The Olympia Planning Commission’s Missing Middle plan has been met with unnecessary controversy. By allowing alternative dwelling units (ADUs), tiny houses, and duplexes in new neighborhoods, Olympia is able to deal with two critical issues at once. The first is driving down the costs of housing by alleviating the city’s housing shortage. The second is increasing urban density so less development happens in rural territory. Unfortunately, achieving these goals has been made more difficult by opposition to the Missing Middle plan. While some criticism may be misinformed, other criticisms are motivated by economic self-interest. Historically, homeowners across the United States have promoted restrictive zoning practices, often justified with environmental rhetoric, in order to maintain property values. Unfortunately, Olympia is not immune to these practices.
Low vacancy, high rents
Olympia is in the middle of a housing shortage. According to the Department of Numbers, a database website that calculates information based on the US Census, the 2015 rental vacancy rate in Olympia is at a tight 3.27 percent. To put that in perspective, the national average is nearly double at 5.85 percent. This tight vacancy rate means that Olympia’s rents are high and climbing. In 2005, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment in Olympia was $925. By 2015 it had climbed to $1,041. Compared to national averages for the same time period the amounts are $858 and $959, respectively.
Adding housing units will drive down cost
The best way to bring down the cost of housing is to add more units. The greater and more diverse the supply of housing in the market, the greater decline in prices will occur. ADUs, tiny homes, and duplexes help reduce the overall price of housing in the by adding to the housing stock in the terms of diversity and raw numbers. This is especially the case for units that can offer housing at discounted rates. Newer homes and apartments tend to cost more than older ones for two reasons: one, they are better quality, and two, there is higher demand. ADUs and tiny houses cost more per square foot compared to single-family homes because of economies of scale, but they are able to avoid high prices overall because consumers are purchasing a smaller unit with fewer features. As more of these types of units get added to the housing market, bargaining power shifts from the seller to the consumer, and this drives down the price of housing in general.
Not gentrification but its opposite
Concerns that ADUs, tiny homes, and duplexes will cause gentrification misunderstand the concept. Gentrification is caused by a “rent gap.” Essentially, a rent gap occurs when the cost of land becomes cheap due to underinvestment. This leads to low rents. Even though the land is cheap, its potential value is immense because developers recognize nearby pent-up demand. They purchase the land for cheap, quickly redevelop it, and rent or sell it at a premium. Not only is land in Olympia not cheap, but the areas that would experience the up-zoning from the Missing Middle plan are some of the wealthiest areas in Olympia.
Emmett O’Connell, on his blog Olympia Time, analyzed neighborhoods that have the greatest potential for growth under the Missing Middle plan. These areas tended to be wealthy and located on the Southeast side. The fear that these areas would become gentrified if they allow townhouses and duplexes—dwelling units normally occupied by people of modest means—flips the idea of gentrification around. If anything, the Missing Middle plan would reverse some of the social stratification associated with gentrification by providing more modestly priced housing options in some of Olympia’s wealthier neighborhoods.
High population density in Oly’s urban nodes
Critics of the Missing Middle plan claim that it is unnecessary because Olympia can absorb all its growth in three urban nodes: the downtown, the Martin-Pacific-Lilly triangle, and around Capital Mall. Not only is the idea that these areas will somehow absorb all the approximately 20,000 people who are expected to move to the city in the next 20 years extremely tenuous, but the suggestion is patently unfair and environmentally irresponsible. The areas listed above all have high population densities and, not surprisingly, are areas where most of Olympia’s poor and working-class residents are concentrated. Building enough housing for all potential future residents in these areas would require putting every parcel of land that could be used for parks, green spaces, or recreation on the market.
Consider the inequality of the suggestion. Instead of having the economically privileged neighborhoods in Olympia—whose residents already have their own lawns and driveways—accept more neighbors, less economically privileged neighborhoods are asked to absorb all the growth and possibly risk losing the potential for neighborhood amenities.
Purpose of the urban growth boundary
Furthermore, trying to concentrate all the growth in these areas all but ensures that the county will fail to meet its conservation goals. The Thurston County Regional Planning Council recommends limiting new housing units in rural areas from now until 2035 to 5 percent. The prospect of reaching that goal is not looking good. Between 2015 and 2017, approximately 10.7 percent of new units in the county were built in rural areas. In terms of ecological responsibility, the best thing the city can do is absorb as much growth as possible within its urban growth boundary. After all, what is the point of having an urban growth boundary if it is not going to accommodate urban growth?
“Slow growth” is not a solution
Finally, those opposed to the Missing Middle plan often appeal to a version of “slow-growth” environmentalism. Singling out developers as ecological villains, the slow-growth movement offers the proposition that stopping or slowing the rate of economic development would solve our environmental problems. Instead of promoting dense, mixed-use, and evenly distributed urban development, municipalities should discourage new development altogether and adopt a “small is beautiful” ethos that zones for single-family homes.
The recommendations from the slow-growth movement could not be more wrong. According to the Energy Information Administration, apartment buildings are far more efficient than any collection of single-family homes. Single-family homes built in the 2000s consume 10 percent more energy than homes built in the 1970’s. Meanwhile, apartments with 2-4 units built in the 2000s consume 5 percent less energy than their 1970s counterparts. For apartments with 5 or more units, the drop is even more dramatic with a 12 percent decrease.
Environmental benefits of apartment buildings
Overall, average residential energy consumption has decreased due to greater efficiencies in appliances and heating, but the most dramatic drop has been in large apartment complexes. Between 1980 and 2009, energy consumption in apartment buildings with 5 or more units decreased by 48 percent. For single-family homes, gains have been offset by the fact that their average size has increased. Opponents to the Missing Middle plan who are concerned with the environment should be clamoring to increase the density of their neighborhoods by welcoming large apartment buildings that house more people with less energy.
A shameful history of restrictive zoning
These environmental arguments are not surprising considering the history of restrictive zoning laws. Zoning laws and the environmental justifications for them became popular in the early 1970s. The first generation of post-World War II homeowners was able to ride the wave of subsidized suburban development, but they did so with exclusionary policies. People of color and poor people were prevented from owning homes by various discriminatory practices. However, after the social breakthroughs of the 1960s, these groups were poised to enter suburban neighborhoods.
At that point, homeowner associations began to argue that every cul-de-sac was a fragile ecosystem. As professor William Fischel of Dartmouth College has noted
“after political and legal pressure began to be applied to accommodate a variety of housing, general population growth looked less attractive to suburban voters. The thinking by [homeowners] might have been, if we have to take blacks and the poor along with everyone else, maybe we would prefer to have no growth at all. Of course, public expressions of such ideas [were] unacceptable, so an alternative rationale for stopping growth was necessary. Preservation of the environment by preserving open space… began to be especially popular.”
Fischel admits that proving intention is notoriously difficult, but nevertheless remains convinced that “the primary reason people participate in stopping development is their concern with their home values.”
Preventing movement toward a healthy, diverse and affordable Olympia
This history is extremely important to consider when evaluating criticism to the Missing Middle plan. As Olympia’s population grows, it becomes more ethnically and economically diverse, but this diversity could be stifled by restrictive zoning practices. If Olympia’s slow-growth movement succeeds, the end result will be an Olympia that remains largely white, stuck in a housing shortage, and surrounded by a rural area that has been ecologically damaged by development projects that could have gone elsewhere. That is a situation that is great for wealthy white homeowners within city limits, bad for everyone else.
Marco Rosaire Rossi is a writer, activist, and former resident of Olympia. He is currently pursuing a PhD in urban politics at the University of Chicago-Illinois.