Missing Middle matters

Changes to land use policies - including the Missing Middle - are a vital part of our community’s strategy for preventing homelessness and, as such, are a key element of the local 5 Year Homeless Housing Plan. Before describing how and why zoning policies can prevent homelessness, please allow me to offer a note on why I personally feel so passionately about this issue.

I am in love with this city.  I have been part of this community for twenty five years and have lived in the city for seventeen years. I hope to spend the remainder of my life here.

I began hitchhiking to Olympia on the weekends to escape the violence that surrounded me, and to which I was subjected, in my nearby home community when I was just fourteen years old. I found in Olympia a community of young people who saw me, who understood me, and who welcomed me. Olympia became my home away from home and a safe haven during a difficult period of my life.

Seventeen years ago, on a sweltering July afternoon when I walked into the Bread & Roses soup kitchen to volunteer my time, I found a community of people who had dedicated themselves to witnessing and welcoming people who had also been hurt by the violence of our world. I was so moved by their love that I gave most of my adult life to Bread & Roses, including ten years in which I lived and worked in their House of Hospitality, before committing myself full-time to SideWalk.

Bread & Roses’ neighbors - in spite of the challenges of living next door to a homeless shelter - exemplified the same values that we attempted to live out in our home at the House of Hospitality. They chatted with us over the fence. They exchanged garden produce with us. They shared the neighborhood news with us. They loaned us books. They listened and offered comfort when we struggled. And when they saw that we were too exhausted from our work, they invited us into their homes for tea, for dinner, or for drinks.

SideWalk was formed from these same values. To offer a warm welcome, to offer a word of comfort, to offer a moment of respite and sanctuary as we work with our participants to find homes. To cross the lines of class, race, religion, and political ideology and engage our entire community in the cause of ending homelessness. These practices are who we are as an organization. And SideWalk was not formed in a vacuum; we are a reflection of the values of our community.

Olympia is a community that offers a welcoming smile to our neighbors, whomever they may be. We are a community that believes in inclusion. We are the community that rallied to the aid of Camp Quixote when they launched their protest in a city parking lot 11 years ago. As Nazi’s and white supremacists marched openly in the streets and as federal agents detained Muslims in the airports, our city council voted to make our community a Sanctuary City. In voting for the Home Fund, Olympians showed that we are a city that will not abandon the most vulnerable people among us. We are the city whose government signed the Charter of Compassion, and whose city council invoked that charter in a historic display of solidarity with the homeless in a recent and unanimous resolution. We are the city that created and nurtured Bread & Roses, Pizza Klatch, Unity in the Community, GRuB, Interfaith Works, the Bridge Music Project, SafePlace, SideWalk, and many other extraordinary organizations. Because we are a city that believes in love.

I am in love with Olympia because the people of Olympia are a loving community of people. And we are courageous in living out our values.

This is why it is distressing to watch so many people turning out in opposition to the Missing Middle. Even a community such as ours, when we are unaware of our history, can cause real harm.

Olympia's History of Segregation

Olympia’s neighborhoods were designed to be white. This was done intentionally and explicitly over many decades. Redlining policies, applied in our own community, prevented people of color from receiving home loans. Racial covenants in homeowners’ associations explicitly excluded people of color from the neighborhoods. Deed restrictions on property titles prevented sale of property to people of color (many of these restrictions, though they are now illegal and unenforceable, still exist on many property titles in our city today). And as these practices were shot down by the courts, restrictive zoning policies were created that prevented the creation of homes at prices within reach for many people of color.

Redlining, racial covenants, and racist deed restrictions are now illegal. But restrictive zoning policies continue to artificially inflate property prices, pushing homeownership out of reach for communities of color who have historically been prevented from developing the equity necessary to purchase a home in this era. The same restrictive zoning laws, combined with a regressive system of impact fees, are also suppressing the creation of rental homes at prices within reach for people with disabilities, senior citizens, and working class and low income people. These zoning laws are incompatible with our values as a city.

The opponents of Missing Middle are not bigots. They are Olympians. They are good people. They are progressives, they value inclusion, and they care about our community. For the most part, they are either unaware of our history or mistaken about what the Missing Middle actually does. But their error could have consequences that cut against the very values that they espouse.

What Missing Middle Actually Does

The Missing Middle is a set of proposed policies to loosen the zoning laws in our single family neighborhoods. These policies would allow for the creation of duplexes, townhomes, tiny houses, and accessory dwelling units (“mother-in-law” apartments) in the neighborhoods, effectively diversifying the types of homes available in our community. This diversity in options can help to reverse the legacy of racist housing policies, contribute to our city’s inclusive values, create new niche opportunities for first-time home buyers, and help to stabilize the skyrocketing prices of rentals in our city.

Opponents, misunderstanding the proposed policies, have shared a lot of inaccurate information. They suggest that the Missing Middle is a “giveaway to developers” that will gentrify our neighborhoods. Missing Middle will not cause gentrification; it will help to undo generations of gentrification and segregation that have already occurred. It also will not result in widespread redevelopment of the neighborhoods; it offers a gentle way of increasing infill of homes in the neighborhoods.

Missing Middle is consistent with, despite opponents’ concerns, the aesthetic and character of residential neighborhoods. One neighborhood resident expressed a fear of a “four story apartment building” being developed next to her single family home. Missing Middle supports duplexes and townhomes, not large apartment buildings, and a variety of height restrictions and density restrictions still apply.

Zoning and Homelessness

How does all of this relate to homelessness? As rental prices grow and rental availability grows ever more scarce, increasing numbers of people are falling onto the streets. Our own data, as a coordinated entry provider for homeless services, show that the number of people newly falling into homelessness has grown each year for the last five years in a row. The rate at which we are moving people into homes (no small thing - SideWalk helped over 1,000 people to escape homelessness in 5 years) is now radically outstripped by the rate at which new people are falling onto the streets. Too many people are being squeezed out of our extraordinarily tight housing market.

People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately people of color, and a whopping two thirds of the population of homeless adults are people who are on fixed incomes due to disability. These are the very same communities that have historically suffered many of the worst impacts of discrimination.

In order for SideWalk’s participants to find homes, and to prevent them from falling onto the streets in the first place, rental prices need to stabilize (or decrease) and the availability of rental homes needs to grow. We particularly need a diverse array of types of rentals available - studios, micro-apartments, tiny homes, accessory dwelling units, room rentals, and smaller, lower cost homes. Missing Middle does not address all of these needs, and our community will still have a lot of work to do if it passes, but it represents a very important first step in the process of stabilizing and diversifying the local housing market.

Our city is at the start of a rapid growth in population. If we band together now to plan for thoughtful development of new homes, we can ensure that Olympia grows to be the diverse, inclusive, vibrant city that we all dream of. And if we work together to stabilize rental prices through smart land use policies, then together our community can still end homelessness. Please contact the Planning Commission and the City Council and let your voice be heard on this vital issue.

Phil Owen