Olympia has been working hard in recent years to diversify its downtown housing to include more market rate units. Today, nearly five of every six downtown residences is available to low-income residents, according to city data.
This imbalance has long been a brake on downtown Olympia’s economic vitality. City leaders have sought for years to spur construction of higher-cost housing to bring more customers to downtown businesses, and to encourage an urban lifestyle that promotes a vibrant cultural and community life, and reduces suburban sprawl and reliance on cars.
The city is making progress toward this goal. Columbia Heights, a 138-unit apartment complex under construction along Fourth Avenue, is among several new apartment complexes that will soon attract more people earning higher incomes to live in the city core.
That is why we are heartened to see that the city and the Low Income Housing Institute of Seattle are exploring alternatives to LIHI’s proposed subsidized housing project on Columbia Street, across from a park, and with a spectacular view of Budd Inlet and the Percival Landing boardwalk.
LIHI’s Olympia Commons may be a good project for South Sound, and certainly Thurston County needs more low-income housing. The Housing Authority of Thurston County has a waiting list of about 1,000 low-income households seeking federal Section 8 vouchers to assist with rental costs at eligible units.
Still, we hope the LIHI apartment complex can be located outside Olympia’s downtown.
Talks have been ongoing for a few months in a bid to shift LIHI’s project to a site that might be outside the immediate city center. One early site picked out by the city — on the east side along Martin Way — apparently won’t work, but other realty interests have been drawn into conversation with city leaders.
Sharon Lee, the executive director at LIHI, has described the 0.33-acre site as ideal for low-income tenants because of its proximity to the Intercity Transit hub a few blocks away. The city community center and Family Support Center also are nearby.
The project would cost an estimated $8 million for 43 subsidized apartments. These are to be rented to veterans, low income families and people with disabilities. LIHI is seeking about $861,420 in federal tax credits.
Lee, a longtime developer of low-income housing, is familiar with battles against forces that just don’t want poor people around. And she sounds a valid caution: “There’s a problem when people are saying, ‘This site is so nice, low-income people shouldn’t live there.’ … I can’t think of a more deserving low-income population than veterans.”
But what a healthy community ought to have is a diverse, integrated housing pattern — not one that segregates poor residents in one area, and richer ones in another.
City Manager Steve Hall is leading city efforts to work with LIHI to find better options. We urge the parties to continue that exploration.