Finding ‘Missing Middle’ Housing in Olympia, Washington

by Joyce Phillips, AICP; Leonard Bauer

Housing affordability is one of the greatest challenges facing many communities in the western U.S.  Rising demand outpaces the supply of additional housing units, driving prices steeply upward.

Yet many cities and towns limit large areas of the community to the most expensive type of housing – single-family homes – while encouraging much larger, multi-story apartment buildings in remaining areas, often in or near busy commercial districts.

While single-family homes and multi-story apartments remain popular types of housing, there’s often something missing.  Most cities’ and towns’ codes prevent (or strongly discourage) the types of housing that are ‘in the middle’ – small-scale, multi-unit housing such as duplexes, townhouses, backyard cottages, and courtyard-style apartments.  Allowing and encouraging these types of housing throughout a community can provide more affordable housing options for the growing proportion of one- and two-person households in our communities, in a way that is compatible with existing neighborhoods.

In late 2016, the Olympia City Council established a citizen work group to review its zoning code and development fees to identify ways to better enable ‘Missing Middle’ housing throughout the City.  Although it had strong policy support in the Olympia Comprehensive Plan, this planning process became a lengthy public debate between two organized citizen groups conducting campaigns on opposite sides.  This article tells the story of how Olympia adopted these changes, and lessons learned that may be helpful to other cities.

Single Family Home converted to a Duplex - Existing design criteria requires units to maintain neighborhood character  Courtesy of the City of Olympia

Single Family Home converted to a Duplex - Existing design criteria requires units to maintain neighborhood character

Courtesy of the City of Olympia

About Olympia

The City of Olympia, Washington’s capital, has a population of about 52,000 that is growing steadily. Together with the Cities of Lacey and Tumwater, it is part of a metropolitan area of approximately 250,000 people.  It is located on the southern shores of beautiful Puget Sound, and is home to two universities and a community college. The citizenry is well-educated and very active in local government issues, in part because it includes many current and retired state government workers.

Olympia’s household size has steadily decreased in recent decades, from 3.1 people per household (pph) in 1960 to 2.5 pph in 2010, and 2.21 pph as reported in the 2013-2017 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.   Fifty-one percent of Olympia households rent their homes, and 70% of households consist of one or two persons.

Comprehensive Plan Framework

The City completed a major rewrite of its comprehensive plan in late 2014.  That process included substantial public outreach, and thousands of individuals were involved.  The plan recognized the need to accommodate 20,000 new residents by 2035. To do so, it designates three high-density neighborhoods, one of which is downtown Olympia, to accommodate approximately 75% of that growth.  The plan also calls for increasing housing opportunities within low-density neighborhoods, which make up over 70% of the city and its urban growth area. Plan policies call for:

  • a variety of compatible housing types,

  • removing unnecessary regulatory barriers to housing,

  • addressing neighborhood character,

  • blending multifamily housing into neighborhoods, and

  • providing housing variety for all income levels.  

The policy framework in the comprehensive plan strongly supports the Missing Middle planning effort.

The Missing Middle Project

Fourplex - Courtesy of the City of Olympia

Fourplex - Courtesy of the City of Olympia

The Council approved a charter for the citizen’s work group to identify its role and tasks.  It was made up of 16 community members with a broad range of interests and expertise. The group was not charged with reaching consensus nor developing specific recommendations.  Rather, its focus was to identify barriers and potential solutions to them. The eight monthly work group meetings were open to the public.

The Council’s Land Use and Environment Committee hosted two broadly-advertised open houses early in the process to make people aware of the project and gain a better understanding of public thoughts on the issues.  With that public input and its own expertise, the work group identified fourteen major issues. City staff developed an issue paper for each one, which were posted online. (Throughout the two-year project, a project webpage was kept current with upcoming meetings, documents, presentations, and an email address for anyone who wanted to comment.)  

The issue papers spurred intensive conversation within the work group regarding potential code changes.  An extra meeting was added to review and comment on draft staff recommendations based on the work group’s discussions.  At its conclusion, the work group expressed strong satisfaction with the process.

Briggs Village: Townhouses – One type of Missing Middle Housing. Olympia’s code changes removed larger setbacks and other restrictions on townhouse development.

Briggs Village: Townhouses – One type of Missing Middle Housing. Olympia’s code changes removed larger setbacks and other restrictions on townhouse development.

Summary of Recommendations

Below are the key elements of the staff-recommended changes to Olympia’s low-density zoning districts. While a greater variety of permitted housing types was proposed, the allowed density of the zoning districts would not increase.  Minimum lot sizes would increase with the number of units proposed.  

  • Relax ADU requirements (height, parking, size; prohibition of manufactured homes).  The ordinance also removed the City’s previous requirement that the property owner live on-site, which proved difficult to enforce.  ADUs would continue to be permitted on any lot with a single-family home.

  • Allow greater variety of housing types (duplexes, tri- and four-plexes, cottages, small apartment buildings), especially near transit routes and commercial districts

  • Remove added requirements for multi-unit housing (wider lot widths, wider setbacks, higher off-street parking requirements)

  • Reduce utility and impact fee requirements for smaller housing types (allow for shared utility connections, scale impact fees and utility hook-up charges for smaller units)

It is important to note that the work group felt Olympia’s existing development standards adequately addressed a number of issues.  These include design review standards for infill development and designated residential historic districts, which will address a number of neighborhood concerns about renovations being consistent with existing architectural character of a neighborhood.  They also include low-impact development stormwater measures, regulations of environmentally sensitive areas, and open space standards.

To help people understand which housing types were already permitted versus proposed to be permitted, staff developed a simple comparison chart.  Graphics and illustrations explained how the proposed changes would apply to duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, courtyard apartments, cottage developments, and other housing types on lots of various sizes.

Public Reaction

Sign of support - Courtesy of the City of Olympia

Sign of support - Courtesy of the City of Olympia

To this point, approximately 200 people had been involved in the process by participating in work group meetings and open houses, or submitting written comments.  This was a greater level of interest than zoning code amendments often receive. City planning staff felt confident that the process so far reflected a broad set of perspectives and was a reasonably balanced approach.  They published a draft summary of the recommended zoning code changes and began sharing it at meetings with neighborhoods and other stakeholders groups.

Protest signs seen in yards throughout town. Courtesy of the City of Olympia

The next step was to conduct a public survey to get broader, community-wide feedback.  The City also contracted with the regional planning agency, Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC), to analyze the proposal’s potential effects on future housing capacity.  This would become part of the environmental impact analysis required by Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).

The on-line survey received a fairly high number of responses, and the results were mixed.  The majority of respondents had a positive reaction to all of the potential zoning code changes, but the survey also revealed strong disagreement from a significant minority percentage of respondents.  

More importantly, the release of the draft summary and survey informed many more people about the process.  Reaction was swift. A group of citizens, Olympians Opposed to Missing Middle (OOMM), immediately formed to oppose the proposed changes.  This group raised many questions about the impacts analysis and demanded significantly more time for public process.  An existing citizen group that had formed to support the implementation of the Olympia Comprehensive Plan, Olympians for People-Oriented Places (OPOP), activated its membership to support the proposed changes.

In response to hundreds of comments it received, the Olympia Planning Commission directed significant additional public outreach steps.  City staff also made additional presentations at seventeen community and neighborhood group meetings (including neighborhood associations that had been represented on the original work group but had not previously requested briefings).  

The Olympia Planning Commission’s extensive public process to get feedback on the proposed changes certainly accomplished that goal.  They received well over one thousand written and verbal comments as OPOP and OOMM used social media to encourage input to the City. Unfortunately, this tended to oversimplify public discussion into a debate of whether Missing Middle housing was entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Many citizens did not take the time to understand and consider the entire proposal, relying instead on messages distributed by these two groups - which were not always accurate.

As each group’s ‘campaign’ heightened, both contacted larger media outlets in nearby Seattle.  As has become typical in major media coverage, these media outlets simply interviewed each ‘side’, further characterizing the proposal as a simple, all-or-nothing debate.  The local newspaper provided a little more in-depth coverage, publishing excerpts of a panel discussion it hosted on the proposed code changes.  An alliance of several neighborhood associations also hosted a panel discussion.  These discussions did clarify some information for the general public and highlighted the primary issues of contention:

  • whether triplex, fourplex and courtyard apartments should be permitted in the lowest-density zoning district, even if limited to the vicinity of transit corridors or commercial areas;

  • whether to remove the existing requirement that a property owner live on-site to permit an ADU; and

  • what are appropriate off-street parking requirements for Missing Middle housing?

After reviewing significant additional analysis of the potential impacts of these changes, the Planning Commission agreed with nearly all of the staff recommendations.  Commissioners did recommend revisions to further limit some housing types to smaller areas along transit corridors and near commercial areas, and to further decrease off-street parking requirements for most housing types.  

The City Council’s Land Use and Environment Committee held multiple work sessions before focusing triplex, fourplex and courtyard apartments on transit corridors with the highest service frequency.  The Committee recommended most other Missing Middle housing types be permitted in all residential and mixed use zoning districts. The City Council unanimously adopted the Committee’s recommendation, citing the importance of providing a variety of more affordable housing choices throughout Olympia.

Tonwhouses - Briggs Village - Photo 26.JPG

Lessons Learned

The two-year process analyzing and discussing Missing Middle housing resulted in many lessons learned for City staff and Planning Commissioners.  Here are a few:

  1. Missing Middle housing is needed to vary housing type and affordability options, and help accommodate future growth.  The analysis was very clear – future population growth will continue, and will increasingly consist of smaller households with less ability to purchase single-family houses.  Providing for this future population requires significantly greater variety in housing types and affordability.

  2. Determining which zoning provisions should be revised will vary according to each community and neighborhood’s historic scale and type of development.  Understanding the existing visual and social context is critical to determining what additional types of housing could be compatible over time.  Olympia’s process would have benefitted from earlier attention to these factors.

  3. In a contentious public debate, complex issues get sloganized.  Once public discussion was effectively reduced to an ’all or nothing’ debate, it became nearly impossible to regain focus on key public policy details.  Detailed discussions by a knowledgeable citizen work group early in the process shaped a set of proposed changes to Olympia’s codes that largely stood up to extreme scrutiny.  However, these details never really entered the larger public discussion once social media campaigns began to take hold.

  4. Sharing public policy issues in bite-sized pieces may help improve public discussion.  In hindsight, rolling out the citizen work group discussions to Olympia citizens gradually (rather than in a single, complex proposal) likely would have improved the broader public understanding.  This can be challenging in some cases, as the various aspects of a larger proposal often help balance each other and need to be discussed at the same time. Planners should consider how to introduce concepts for public discussion as early as possible while maintaining context.

Complete information on Olympia’s Missing Middle planning process is available at

About the authors:

Joyce Phillips Photo.jpg

Joyce Phillips, AICP
Senior Planner
City of Olympia, Community Planning and Development

Joyce has over 20 years of professional experience in city, county, and state government working on a variety of long-range and current planning issues in both eastern and western Washington communities. She is currently a Senior Planner for the City of Olympia and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). Joyce holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and an undergraduate degree in Geography and Land Studies. She currently serves as the Professional Development Officer for the South Sound Section of the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association. Joyce served ten years on the Washington State Commute Trip Reduction Board (2006 - 2016) and in 2006 was the recipient of the Washington State Chapter’s Barbara Grace Award for public service.

Leonard Bauer photo.jpg

Leonard Bauer
Deputy Director
City of Olympia, Community Planning and Development

Leonard Bauer is the City of Olympia’s Deputy Director for Community Planning and Development.  He manages all aspects of planning and community development for the City.

Leonard was the Managing Director of Growth Management Services at the Washington State Department of Commerce for 12 years.  Prior to that, he spent 14 years as a planner and planning director at various local governments including the Lane Council of Governments in Eugene, Oregon, and helped the Cities of Tumwater and Sumner adopt and implement their comprehensive plans and development regulations under the Washington GMA.  

Leonard holds a Masters Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Oregon.  He is the co-author of a Land Use Dispute Resolution Handbook published by the Oregon Bureau of Governmental Research for Oregon local governments.  In 2014, He was inducted as a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a national recognition for excellence in the field of planning.  He is also the 2013 recipient of the WA Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Meyer Wolfe Award for Professional Achievement.

Paul Moberly