Opinion Columns & Blogs

Olympia City Council needs to make some trades to tip balance in favor of housing

Max Brown is a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors
Max Brown is a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors

Did your grow up playing with trading cards? Recently, I introduced my daughter to my collection, and she loved them. I gave her a stack to start her own collection and she soon realized that I had a few cards that she wanted. This seemed like the appropriate time to explain why they are called “trading” cards.

My favorite moment so far was when my daughter asked if she could trade cards with me while I was gone at work. She informed me any swap she made would have my best interest in mind. And here lies a lesson I learned about trading from a young age: It really only works when it is beneficial for both sides. One-sided trading always hurts someone and never builds a relationship or trust.

Lately it seems the city of Olympia hasn’t been making mutually beneficial trades, leaving some community members unable to afford housing in Olympia or provide shelter for our community members who are experiencing homelessness. Here are three actions I believe the city council should take to address the imbalance.

To start, sell the Artesians Commons Park. The city spends roughly $100,000 per year to operate the public restroom and $145,000 per year on maintenance, programs and events at the park. Couple that with over $1.2 million invested in the property itself and it doesn’t take long to question the city’s investment strategy on 0.2 acres of downtown. The city should enter into an agreement with a developer to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing on the property and use the $250,000 per year they would save to help fund a managed homeless encampment.

Second, hand over the Downtown Ambassador program to a non-profit to run. For those who may not have been watching, the city council pulled a fast one on the process to hire a new provider to run the Downtown Ambassador program this past winter. I applaud Mayor Cheryl Selby for voicing concerns over the process and the $466,830 annual price tag. The rest of the council voted to bring the program under the umbrella of the city, for $100,000 more than it would have cost a non-profit — roughly the amount the city was short on funding a day center for those experiencing homelessness in our community. Shift the resources back to a non-profit and use that money to support a much needed day center.

Finally, pass the Missing MIddle Housing Proposal (MMHP). Over the past several years the city has spent $12 million to purchase what is known as the LBA Woods. By purchasing this land, the city put a halt on plans to build housing in the area. Those plans included building roughly 1,000 units of housing. The Thurston Regional Planning Council, which provides information regarding the region and its emerging planning issues, estimates that the MMHP will add, you guessed it, roughly 1,000 units of housing to Olympia. Pass the MMHP and begin the process of adding back to the housing inventory that was lost when the LBA Woods was purchased.

The benefits the city could receive from these actions would be a significant first step toward addressing the needs of our most vulnerable. Recently, the city council outlined its priorities to address homelessness, but it has thus far struggled to identify ways to fund those priorities. If the city wants to fund managed homeless encampments and a day center, we will need to find additional money. If we want to stop seeing people go from being on the brink of homeless into actual homelessness, we need to build more housing. It will take major investments to chip away at our homeless crisis, and these options are a start.

While making decisions that have lasting impacts on a community are far less trivial than trading cards with a friend or family member, some of the same principles apply. When we know what we value it makes it easier to determine which trades we are willing to accept. If Olympia values caring for our most vulnerable and those struggling to make ends meet, we can start by making some trades to invest in their well-being.

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 can be reached at brownmh74@gmail.com.