After two years in the works, the Olympia City Council on Monday unanimously approved a controversial set of development regulations designed to encourage infill housing in neighborhoods now dominated by single-family homes.
The changes will allow more types of housing including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and courtyard apartments — what’s called the “missing middle” since they are in between single-family homes and large apartment buildings — to be built in more parts of the city, specifically in low-density residential zoning districts.
The city started floating ways to promote “missing middle” housing in 2016. In early 2017, it formed a work group to study the issue. That group’s findings led to a series of recommendations from city staff, which had to be approved by the planning commission.
The City Council had the final say. After giving initial approval in September, the council on Monday approved the changes to the municipal code.
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Council members also called for a study of how the city’s impact fees are calculated. Those are one-time fees on new construction meant to offset the impact of new residents on the city’s roads, schools and parks. High impact fees can be a barrier to more homes being built, and can push up the cost of homes.
During public comment at Monday’s meeting, advocates of the missing middle changes said increasing density will prevent sprawl, while more variety in housing types will provide relief to renters and would-be homebuyers who have watched prices rise.
But critics have argued the changes could alter the character of some neighborhoods and even lead to homes being torn down to make way for larger developments in areas with lower property values.
“Welcome to development city, because that’s what’s going to happen here. Everything that makes Olympia unique will be gone,” Margaret Fleming said.
Critics also have noted the changes don’t guarantee affordable housing will be built. But in voting “yes,” some council members tied the issue to the region’s housing shortage, rising rents and homelessness.
“While it doesn’t necessarily build affordable housing, it will help get more units built, which will then drive down the price of housing,” said council member Jim Cooper.
But Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones had a more cautious take, suggesting this could slow the rate of increases but may not bring costs down.
“I also want to be clear with the community that we’re not done. There’s much more to be done in order to address the serious housing problem that is a regional problem, not just Olympia’s problem,” Jones said.