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Olympia Braces For Change, But Some Homeowners Aren't Thrilled

Courtesy of the city of Olympia

Leaders in Olympia are trying to adapt to changing demographics and make room for an influx of new residents, but their plan is rankling some homeowners.

City leaders are considering changes to zoning across roughly two-thirds of the city that would allow for more of what they call "missing middle" housing in single-family neighborhoods.

That "middle" is multi-family housing that falls between a single-family home and an apartment building, such as a duplex, triplex, townhome, cottage, or accessory apartment. 

Olympia officials hope is to address a mismatch in the housing stock: 70 percent of the city's households are just one or two people, yet much of the city's housing is single-family homes designed for larger families.

There's also a rising demand for more affordable rentals over single-family houses, city officials said. 

“We have a change in demographics, a change in the types of households we have," said Leonard Bauer, deputy director of the city's Community Planning and Development Department.

But the city's plan has some homeowners worried. 

“The potential changes we’re talking about are going to be basically a reverse re-gentrification of a neighborhood," said Bob Jorgenson, who has lived in Olympia for 30 years. "We’re going to be putting multi-family where multi-family is not appropriate.” 

Jorgenson, who created a Facebook page to rally residents against the plan, said he's worried about worsening traffic, declining home values, and changing the aesthetics of single-family neighborhoods.

The Olympia Planning Commission is holding a public hearing on the proposal at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Olympia City Hall.

Bauer, of the city's Planning and Development Department, said that, while the types of housing allowed in neighborhoods would change, legal density limits would not.

For instance, he said, if four to eight units of housing are allowed per acre in a certain zone, that would remain the same. But he said developers may choose to build toward the higher end of that spectrum if duplexes, townhomes and other "missing middle" housing is allowed. 

Olympia's population is projected to increase by nearly 40 percent – or about 20,000 residents – by the year 2040, according to the Thurston Regional Planning Council.

Much of the growth is being driven by people moving from outside the county, especially from Pierce County, said Marc Daily, the council's executive director.

"What we think is behind that is as King County continues to be more and more unaffordable, people are looking to Pierce County," he said. "As Pierce County's costs go up, go up, go up, then people start looking further south." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.