City livability is linked to higher urban density

Say the word “density” in a crowded room and you are likely to get a mixed bag of responses. Density isn’t typically an endearing term, especially if it means drastic changes to your neighborhood. But I believe it is time we start to rethink our relationship with urban land-use density.

Most people want a downtown they can enjoy and feel safe in, parks that people of all ages can engage, a strong safety-net for our most vulnerable community members and walkable neighborhoods where housing is affordable. Yet it is very difficult to make this wish list a reality without higher density.

Take for example a recently approved and controversial building in downtown Olympia, Views on 5th. The building is slated to hold 138 apartments on roughly an acre in downtown Olympia. In order to achieve that kind of density in most other parts of Olympia, it would require at least 17 acres, roughly half the size of Yauger Park.

Land use planning is often a game of trade-offs, increasing density in certain areas to preserve others. The problem arises when you try to preserve everything, much like San Francisco, California and Austin, Texas have done, and seen the cost of housing skyrocket.

While there are concerns about Olympia’s downtown as new apartments are built, if we look at the big picture, we should be supportive of such change. If Olympia wishes to be an inclusive city that allows for people across income-levels to live and thrive, it needs to add housing, and fast. Thurston County will need to build 55,000 units of housing in the next 25 years to keep pace with demand and curb the rise in housing prices. To get a sense of the scope of this lift, that is the same amount of housing currently in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater put together.

The notion that new housing units are somehow exacerbating the housing affordability crisis is short-sighted at best and not backed by any real data.

As a state, Washington ended 2017 with the lowest rental vacancy rates in the country. It is becoming more difficult to find a place to rent and the units that are available to rent are more expensive than they have been in the past.

Nationally, studies continue to show a direct link between the amount of available rental units and the increase in rentals rates. The graphs look like they were taken directly out of an Economics 101 textbook; the lower the vacancy rates, the higher the increases in rent.

Other studies show that increases in rent contribute to rises in homelessness. When making the link, there is a crystal-clear connection that if you want to reduce homelessness you need to increase available housing units at all levels of the economic spectrum.

Without enough affordable housing options, people who are living on the fringes financially are often pushed over the edge and into homelessness. Households spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered cost-burdened, stretching people financially. Roughly 30 to 35 percent of households in Thurston County fall into this category.

However, those on the lower end of the economic spectrum are impacted at a much higher rate. Roughly 75 to 80 percent of extremely low-income households are cost-burdened by housing in Thurston County. If we are able to build more housing using our current footprint, we both protect the environment and make affordable housing more attainable while creating an inclusive community.

Olympia must get serious about its position on density. The more we push back on increased housing and density, the more we are pushing back on our ability to preserve open space and create a city that people across the economic spectrum can call home.

When people advocate for density, they aren’t advocating primarily for larger buildings, they are advocating for affordable housing, a reduction in people experiencing homelessness, clean air and water, walkable streets; we are advocating for a future that works for more people than our current model can.

Often, we look very long and hard for solutions that will have a positive impact on these complex issues. Advocating for more density is a great place to start.

Max Brown is a former Olympia Planning Commission chair, Lean fellow at Results Washington, and a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at brownmh74@gmail.com.