Housing and public safety led the list of discussion topics Friday during the first day of the Olympia City Council’s annual two-day planning retreat.
The retreat is intended to establish council and policy goals for 2017 and is being held at the LOTT board room, 500 Adams St. NE. No binding decisions will be made at the retreat. The council will meet 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday to cover better council camaraderie, council committee assignments, and a review of 2016’s economic development highlights. The council also will take a lunchtime walking tour of the downtown core.
On Friday, the council discussed the city’s role in shaping the local housing market, especially with the expected influx of 20,000 new residents in the next 20 years — including 5,000 more residents downtown.
One notable shift in the past few years can be seen in the downtown housing supply. The city reports that downtown has 2,124 total housing units (including many under construction), and low- to moderate-income housing units comprise about 46 percent of that total.
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“Over the years, the city has taken a very passive role in housing development in the community,” said Keith Stahley, director of community planning and development, who suggested the city take a more proactive approach to influencing the local housing market.
Part of that approach is to continue encouraging more affordable housing downtown as well as a range of housing types and densities that fit with the city’s changing population and its preferences.
Stahley noted that Olympia ranks higher in quality of life and economic strength than many other U.S. cities, but lower in housing affordability. In Thurston County, the average rent now exceeds $1,000 a month.
“If we stifle housing production, whether it’s affordable or market sector, I guarantee you the cost of housing will increase,” Stahley said. “Anything that squashes the development of market-rate housing is going to increase the cost of a standard unit.”
Several council members said the region’s other cities need to help solve the housing crisis — especially with a possible levy appearing on the ballot later this year to fund more affordable housing.
“It really is a regional issue,” said Council member Jessica Bateman. “We have unhoused individuals across our county.”
The growing demand for housing also coincides with a greater demand for public safety. Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts told the council Friday that more officers are needed to meet this demand.
There’s a need for more officers in neighborhoods on the city’s east and west sides, he said. The current resources won’t allow the police department to meet the public’s expectations for programs such as the downtown walking patrol, code enforcement and neighborhood liaisons. A consistent police presence also is needed downtown to deter crime and foster a greater sense of safety, he said.
The police department is about $3 million short in the 2017 budget to provide those programs and services as well as other demands such as police training and body cameras.
Roberts said he will continue meeting with community members about the possible creation of a citizens advisory committee. The committee has been suggested as a way for the police department to better engage the community and form stronger relationships.
“I see the value in having an advisory group. The question becomes, how is that going to be directed?” said Roberts, noting the need for more officers. “Engagement takes time. Trust takes time.”
Friday’s agenda also touched on city initiatives such as the Downtown Strategy and achieving goals that were set in the city’s comprehensive plan, which serves as a policy blueprint. Council members acknowledged the changing expectations for city services, including this year’s downtown sanitation improvement plan related to installing a permanent restroom at the Artesian Commons.
The city will continue its efforts to incorporate practices that address the threat of climate change and rising sea levels into its policy framework. Examples include reduced emissions for city facilities and vehicles along with embracing energy-efficient practices such as the city’s transition to LED streetlights, which save about $174,000 a year, the city reports.