The case for — and against — Olympia’s ‘missing middle’ housing changes

Raise your hand if you’ve heard the term “missing middle” around Olympia in the past few months and have no idea what it means.

“Missing middle” refers to housing types that fall between a single-family home and a large apartment building. Olympia is considering zoning changes that would make it easier to build things like duplexes, triplexes and mother-in-law apartments in areas currently dominated by single-family homes. The idea is to add housing in existing neighborhoods instead of growing along the edges of the city.

A study by the Thurston Regional Planning Council estimated the “missing middle” changes would result in less than 1,000 new units citywide over 20 years compared with what would be built under current zoning. That number does not include accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or conversions — if a single-family home was turned into a duplex, for instance, or if its garage was converted into an apartment.

Critics say the changes could significantly alter the character of some neighborhoods, particularly areas with lower property values. Bob Jacobs, a former Olympia mayor who served as a neighborhood representative on a group last year that studied the issue for the city, said many people are focused on the possibility for more smaller units like tiny homes and ADUs and less focused on larger developments like triplexes, fourplexes and courtyard apartments.

The Olympian invited people on both side of the “missing middle” debate to talk about the plan. Here’s what they said.

What is the goal?

The vast majority of homes in low-density neighborhoods in Olympia are single-family homes. The city’s comprehensive plan from 2014 calls for a variety of housing types while “(ensuring) neighborhood character is maintained.”

Leonard Bauer, City of Olympia Community Planning and Development: “One of the goals is more choices of housing types. We have 70 percent of our households (with) one or two people in them. Single-family homes may not be the best choice in all those cases, and so providing more variety of housing types in those areas is one of those goals.”

Pat Rasmussen wants to build and live in a tiny home in Olympia. Under the “missing middle” changes, it would become easier to put a tiny home on the same property as a single-family home.

Pat Rasmussen: “I’m a senior, I’m 72, that’s all I need right now. And so I started planning and I found ways to build a tiny home and then I talked to other seniors and I found a lot of seniors want to build tiny homes and live in tiny homes. They want to downsize… We can live in the neighborhood of our choice and we can live in the yard of a relative or friend, we can make co-housing or tiny home villages… There are young people who can’t afford to even rent an apartment, there are single parents with a child or children and they can’t find a place to live. We have a lot of needs, and we have a crisis.”

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Which neighborhoods would be affected?

Technically, all residential areas of the city would be affected, but the changes would be concentrated in low-density areas. Opponents say certain neighborhoods could see an outsized impact. The Eastside Neighborhood Association estimates 90 percent of its neighborhood is within 600 feet of a bus route; those areas would be eligible for triplexes, fourplexes and courtyard apartments. (The planning commission is looking at shrinking that to 300 feet.)

Jim Keogh, Eastside Neighborhood Association: “Obviously not every possible unit that could be developed will be developed, but we literally have the potential of doubling the units in our neighborhood... There are certain areas that definitely have vacant land that’s available to be developed, certain areas have vacant spaces in them, but part of the reason they aren’t developed is more an issue of infrastructure than zoning.”

That includes narrow streets, lack of sidewalks and bus lines. Supporters say those things would come eventually.

Janae Huber, Olympians for People-Oriented Places, which advocates for urban density: “Really what the choice is here is between continuing to sprawl and not meeting our growth management goals… and doing something that is gentle infill in existing neighborhoods that will also widen the tax base in those neighborhoods, helping to make those future infrastructure improvements more viable for the city and higher priority, frankly. If you have more people using a street and that street needs an infrastructure improvement, the priority for that street to be improved is going to be increased.”

5th Ave
A mixture of multi-family and single-family houses on Fifth Avenue Southeast in Olympia. The City Council on Monday approved changes that will allow more multi-family housing in the city’s low-density neighborhoods. Steve Bloom Olympian file photo, 2018

Would this lead to teardowns?

One of the loudest criticisms of the plan is that it could lead to teardowns. The Thurston Regional Planning Council found the average assessed building value of single-family homes that were torn down in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater from 2000 to 2016 was $70,000 in today’s dollars.

Bob Jacobs, former Olympia mayor: “Inexpensive houses on large lots will be torn down and replaced by fourplexes, threeplexes, whatever. That is going to happen… The neighborhoods that have homeowner associations and restrict to single-family houses won’t have conversion to fourplexes because they have private covenants. And neighborhoods with more expensive properties… they’re not going to get torn down because it’s just too much house to tear down, it just won’t work. It is all going to go in the poorer areas of town, mostly the east side, the northeast and some on the west (side).”

Huber: “If you’re a property owner and you buy a house and it’s kind of a junky house and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it, you could either tear it down and put in a triplex, (but) it’d be a lot cheaper for you to possibly refurbish that and put in an ADU.”

Keogh: “The greater issue that we saw in our neighborhood — beyond teardowns, which there’s definitely some possibilities for — has to do with the incentivizing of buying houses to split them... Unlike duplexes, which have to have off-street parking, if you don’t require off-street parking and you are able to convert and you’re able to do it as a non-resident owner, that opens up the door to an awful lot of houses in our neighborhood being converted. It would be not only a parking problem, but it would significantly knock out the set of starter homes that we have in our neighborhood.”

This map shows where duplexes are currently allowed to be built (in green) and where they could be allowed under the proposed changes (in yellow). Courtesy City of Olympia

Would this create affordable housing?

Not explicitly. Supporters say it would create more housing — and more types of housing — that could slow down the increase in costs.

Huber: “Let’s say you’re on the rental market and you’re trying to find a home… and you’re choosing between a single-family home and a single-family home that’s been converted into triplexes. The rent for a single-family home that’s been converted into triplexes will be cheaper. We’re not talking about capital A affordable housing, but we’re talking about housing that is more attainable because it is not a single-family home with a big yard and all the amenities of a single-family home... If you’re not building enough housing for the people who need it, housing prices go up. That is what is happening now. This adds flexibility so that we can get more housing on the market. This is not going to stabilize housing in Olympia, but it’s one piece of the puzzle toward stabilizing prices.”

Meanwhile, some worry development could actually drive down the value of nearby properties.

Jacobs: “I don’t doubt at all that a duplex next to a single-family house would reduce the value of the single-family house — I’ve heard estimates of 10 percent from a local real estate agent — as compared with another single-family house being there… The duplex is worth more than a house that would go in there, so the total value of the properties in the area, if that’s what you’re concerned about, might actually go up even through some might go down… There’s some mitigation possible by designing these things well, but there’s still more people, there’s still more turnover and generally a less desirable neighborhood.”

From left: Bob Jacobs, Leonard Bauer, Pat Rasmussen, Janae Huber and Jim Keogh at a meeting with The Olympian last month. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Would this solve Olympia’s housing shortage?

The short answer is no. The city says “missing middle” changes are a piece of the puzzle when it comes to adding enough housing to meet demand. In recent years, most new housing has been concentrated downtown and in other high-density areas; infill housing gives people the option to live in other parts of the city.

Bauer: “Looking at housing downtown, we’ve been able to experience that because it was planned for, because we put incentives in place, because we adjusted zoning accordingly to try to focus on that happening. We’re programmed to do that on the west and east side commercial areas… ("Missing middle") is a small piece of a much bigger picture that the comprehensive plan lays out. If we do all of them, we may have some success in these areas. If we only do some of them, we are unlikely to be successful.”

But this one piece, opponents say, could have significant consequences.

Keogh: “It’s a one-size-fits-all (solution) in the neighborhoods… We're going to end up with density in the wrong parts of the neighborhood, we’re going to end up with development and lots of extra parking in the wrong parts of the neighborhood… We’re talking about how to make sure people actually have sidewalks so they can get to buses. That’s what’s missing here.”

The zoning changes are still before the planning commission; the City Council will have the final say. Comments can be emailed to missingmiddle@ci.olympia.wa.us.

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869, @AbbySpegman

What would be allowed?

Already allowed in R4-8 districts: single-family homes; ADUs; cottages; townhouses

Would be allowed in R4-8 districts*: duplexes; triplexes and fourplexes within 600 feet of a transit route or commercial district; one-story courtyard apartments within 600 feet of a transit route or commercial district

Already allowed in R6-12 districts: single-family homes; ADUs; cottages; townhouses; duplexes; triplexes and fourplexes in limited areas

Would be allowed in R6-12 districts*: triplexes and fourplexes; courtyard apartments up to two stories; single-room occupancies (where single rooms are rented with a shared bathroom and kitchen)

*depending on the lot size

What are ADUs?

Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, are second, smaller dwellings on the same lot as a single-family house. ADUs could be part of the house or garage, added onto the house or a separate structure.

Only 90 ADUs have been permitted since they were allowed in Olympia in 1995. That could be because there are restrictions.

Under the “missing middle” changes, property owners would no longer be required to live on site, meaning a landlord could rent a home and an ADU on the same property. The height restriction would go from 16 feet to 24 feet to allow ADUs over garages, and ADUs would no longer require their own off-street parking spot.

Source: City of Olympia