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Finding ‘Missing Middle’ Housing, Part 2


April 18, 2019 by Leonard Bauer
Category: Housing

Finding ‘Missing Middle’ Housing, Part 2

All photos used in this blog post have been provided by the City of Olympia.

Part 1 of this blog post described the City of Olympia’s two-year process of changing its zoning to permit ‘missing middle’ housing in more neighborhoods. This blog will look as lessons learned.

As a reminder, missing middle housing is small-scale, multi-unit housing such as duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, backyard cottages (aka, accessory dwelling units or ADUs), and courtyard-style apartments. Missing middle housing is not permitted in large portions of many cities, which are often devoted to single-family housing.

Allowing missing middle housing can provide more affordable living options in a way that is compatible with existing neighborhoods. This approach can also contribute to other community goals, such as accommodating future population increases, increasing walkability, and supporting neighborhood businesses.

Olympia’s 2-year experience provides several lessons that may be helpful to other cities considering changes to increase missing middle housing.

Lesson #1: Ensure supportive policies in the comprehensive plan

Olympia completed a major rewrite of its comprehensive plan in late 2014, a process that included substantial public outreach and involved thousands of individuals.

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A duplex in Olympia

The new plan recognized the need to accommodate 20,000 new residents by 2035. To do so, it designated three high-density neighborhoods near its commercial centers to accommodate approximately 75% of that growth. But the plan also called for increasing housing opportunities within low-density neighborhoods, areas that make up over 70% of the city’s territory. Plan policies called 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.

Having this adopted policy framework provided the impetus for a public process to flesh out the details for carrying out these policies.

Lesson #2: Get expert analysis and opinions to identify an appropriate approach for your community

The Olympia City Council chartered a citizen’s work group to identify barriers in city codes and fees to the construction of multi-unit housing in its residential zones, as well as potential solutions. The work group consisted of 16 community members with expertise in a broad range of fields including construction, real estate, finance, property management, and neighborhood organizing, as well as city-based renters. Overall, the members brought a thorough knowledge of the local housing market and the community’s neighborhoods.

Through discussions and research, as well as public input from two community open houses, the work group identified 14 major issues needing deeper analysis. These included requirements for off-street parking, limits on height and setbacks, water and sewer hook-up costs, impact fees, and maximum housing density. The city also contracted with Thurston Regional Planning Council—a regional planning agency—to analyze the proposal’s potential effects on future housing capacity.

At its final meeting, the work group reviewed specific recommendations made by city staff in response to the 14 challenging issues the group had identified. This process ensured that the recommendations were based on detailed discussion and analysis that reflected a broad set of perspectives and voices.           

Lesson #3: Revisions to zoning provisions should vary according to location and existing development

While Missing Middle housing can promote varying housing types and affordability options, as well as help to accommodate predicted population growth, determining which zoning provisions to revise should vary according to location and historic type of development.

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A fourplex in Olympia

The city’s work group’s analysis was very clear—future population growth in Olympia would continue and increasingly consist of smaller households more constrained in their ability to afford and purchase single-family houses. Providing for this future population requires significantly greater variety in housing types and levels of affordability. Understanding the existing visual and social context is critical to determining what additional types of housing could be compatible over time. Take, for example, the following considerations:

  • Allowing a greater variety of missing middle housing types near transit may allow opportunities to decrease off-street parking requirements, thus lowering the cost of construction.
  • Older neighborhoods may already be experiencing internal conversions of houses into multiple units. Adopting appropriate design standards may encourage this to continue in a way that remains compatible with the established neighborhood aesthetics.
  • Recently developed subdivisions that have smaller lots may make it more difficult to locate three or more additional units on them. In these neighborhoods, it may be more appropriate to limit missing middle housing to ADUs, duplexes, or 2-unit townhouses.           

Lesson #4: Sharing public policy issues in bite-sized pieces may help improve public discussion

In Olympia’s process, the recommendations reviewed by the work group were unveiled to Olympia citizens all at once in a draft summary document. To try to help people understand design and development standards currently in place versus the new proposed standards, 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.

However, citizens not familiar with zoning regulations found the complex set of recommendations difficult to comprehend. As a result, the proposal was quickly sloganized by opposing citizen groups both for and against the overall idea of adding housing units in existing neighborhoods. 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 points of discussion by the knowledgeable work group early in the process never really entered the larger public discussion once social media campaigns began to take hold.

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Signs supporting and opposing middle middle housing

In hindsight, the broader public understanding of the recommendations might have been improved if individual issues had been introduced separately rather than all at once. Olympia’s work group laid the foundation by identifying these major issues and then discussing each one during its research efforts, often finding several potential alternative solutions to the challenges. Had this information been provided to the public on an issue-by-issue basis, this could have been helpful for the broader public discussion and would have provided greater context to each issue.

Complete information on Olympia’s planning process is available at the city's Missing Middle Housing webpage. 

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Leonard Bauer

Leonard Bauer, FAICP, is the City of Olympia’s Deputy Director for Community Planning and Development.

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.

He is the co-author of a Land Use Dispute Resolution Handbook, and in 2014 he was inducted as a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is also the 2013 recipient of the WA Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Meyer Wolfe Award for Professional Achievement.

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