Care needed for ‘missing middle’ housing

There is a good case to be made for making room in Olympia neighborhoods for more people to live, and if possible to pay lower rents. Smaller dwellings can obviously be part of the solution.

Planners are calling their proposal to allow more housing options the “missing middle.” That’s a description of housing units that lie between apartment complexes at the most densely urban end to single family residents at the roomier side of things.

If the City Council ultimately adopts planners’ suggestions, it’s going to mean changes for many neighborhoods. One change is that more homeowners could see multifamily dwellings. The simplest example of these is a small accessory dwelling unit in the back yard of a single-family home.

It could also mean cottages, conversions of garages into a second dwelling, townhouses or even homes converted into duplexes, triplexes or more.

The issue is finally moving into the city’s spotlight this week. The Olympia Planning Commission is holding a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Monday evening at Olympia City Hall.

There is a lot to talk about, and we hope the Planning Commission members, and later the City Council when it holds hearings, takes enough time to ensure this policy is right.

A lot of groups have weighed in already, and it’s impressive to see representatives of organizations as varied as Olympians for People-Oriented Places, Senior Services for South Sound, Thurston County Realtors Association, Thurston Chamber, and Olympia Master Builders signing a letter of support for the concept. Climate-change activists and transit advocates have also signed on.

Getting to a new city policy that works well is never an easy task. But the working group of community activists and planners that organized the letter of support should be commended for their groundwork.

Housing is increasingly unaffordable in Thurston County, and things may only get costlier as a predicted 20,000 residents move into Olympia, and tens of thousands more come into Thurston County over the next two decades. The Olympia work on the “missing middle” is only one small step to adding housing units, but it could become a guide for our region as people move here in search of housing.

There will be impacts, and some neighborhoods won’t handle additional traffic or on-street parking if new residents have automobiles.

But anyone who has spent time in the South Capitol Neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown has noticed these kinds of cottage and accessory-unit additions. For the most part, this has not undermined the character of that historic neighborhood.

The trick for city leaders is carefully draw policies so as not to shock residents. Like it or not, South Sound’s incorporated areas are destined to have a more urban character. Ideally it will be one that more of us can afford to live in.