Affordable housing project would face costly infrastructure costs

The off-site work would 'probably be double the cost of the on-site development' says project engineer


A proposed affordable housing development by the South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity at 2502 8th Avenue SE in Olympia would face significant unexpected costs as city staff outlined extensive off-site infrastructure improvements, including road widening and dedications estimated to double on-site costs.

The Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity, through Artisans Group, presented the "Habitat for Humanity Oly Cottages" proposal to the Site Plan Review Committee during a pre-submission hearing on Wednesday, January 31. The proposed project would create a 12-unit cottage community to provide affordable homeownership opportunities aligned with Habitat's mission.

In the narrative, the two-story cottages are proposed to stand at most 25 feet tall and have an 800-square-foot footprint. The developers believed the cottages would fit in perfectly with the scale and size of the surrounding neighborhood. The community is designed to help residents break free from the financial constraints of renting.

The project includes amenities like a community garden plot for food production.

Transportation requirements

Engineering plans examiner Zulaika Kim provided feedback on several infrastructure considerations for the proposed project, including water service, sewer extensions, and transportation requirements.

According to Kim, the project will require frontage improvements. She outlined the following requirements as per the city code:

  • Dedicating a portion of 8th Avenue as city right-of-way. This dedication would include constructing a section of 8th Avenue to meet the local access standard.
  • Chamber Street has approximately 30 feet of the existing right-of-way, which cannot accommodate the local access standard and required frontage improvements. A dedication of a portion of the street would be necessary.
  • Chamber Street has a pavement rating of 55. Based on the current code, a street overlay would be required for those improvements.
  • Another transportation requirement outlined concerning frontage improvements includes the widening of Chamber Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The widening would need to increase the width to at least 20 feet. The existing width is currently less than 20 feet wide.

Kim explained that the required widening of Chamber Street between 8th and 9th Avenues is to ensure safe emergency service and solid waste access.

  • The city also requires widening 7th Avenue between Boulevard and Chamber Street to a minimum of 20 feet width. This widening work is intended to fulfill transportation standards for the development.
  • The city code also requires widening 7th Avenue between Boulevard and Chamber Street to a minimum width of 20 feet. Another widening requirement to Chamber Street as it turns the corner from 7th Avenue, heading north towards the project site.
  • Kim also noted that establishing safe walking routes along Chamber Street and Seventh Avenue would need to be addressed as an off-site requirement. She said there is an existing bus stop in the area serving Madison Elementary School within a mile distance.
  • The city requires a public shared-use pathway to provide a bike and pedestrian connection running east-west towards the underdeveloped property to the east.

Tyrell Bradley, the civil engineer for the project, seemed taken aback at the extensive off-site improvement requirements. "That's an impressive amount of off-site improvement. I think this is the first project I have worked on where the off-site will probably be double the cost of the on-site development."

Seeking potential ways to ease the financial burden posed by the extensive transportation requirements, Tyrell asked the city staff whether any flexibility or "leniency" exists in the regulations. He specifically inquired if there was any leniency on the transportation side to account for the project aiming to provide affordable housing.

In response, Kim acknowledged Tyrell's concern but noted that currently, the code does not make any distinctions or allowances based on whether a project involves affordable housing or market-rate development.

However, Kim stated that further conversations could be had with the city after the pre-submission stage once more detailed plans have been submitted.

Principal planner Nicole Floyd offered suggestions to help address the financing challenges. She noted that multifamily tax exemptions and other low-income housing programs through the city could provide potential support.


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  • Yeti1981

    And this is the issue across the building industry for both publicly funded and privately funded housing projects. Development costs and "off-site work" are sky high. Yet, we have jurisdiction planning staff and local electeds who seem to think there is no correlation between the end cost of a home and the cost of development. In fact, the rep for the Association of Washington Cities claimed that very thing in testimony to the legislature yesterday. To quote from his testimony, "people will pay what they will pay for housing. The costs associated with development have no impact on that."

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • MrCommonSense

    Here is a project that will provide affordable housing. The City should suck-up some of these infrastructure costs and charge "late-comer" fees to others around the project who could benefit later when the develop their property. We want infill, not urban sprawl, so all our cities should be helping create affordable housing in areas close-in with access to most, if not all infrastructure. It's the City that let past developers install inadequate infrastructure. It's certainly not the fault of the current applicant. e.g. The City never required sidewalks in many areas but now require developers to pay for connecting sidewalks that the City should be paying for as they benefit everyone! As Joe B would say, "Come on man!"

    Thanks for listening. MCC

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • BobJacobs

    The engineer is surprised? Huh? He is paid to know about these things. And any exemption from the requirement for off-site improvements would result in all of us paying these costs in higher taxes.

    Try again!


    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • KentReister

    I lived in rural Japan in a city of 17,000 in housing denser than this on a road substantially narrower than 8th or Chambers. They shouldn't need to be widened just to add 12 units.

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • Bobwubbena

    This is where Jim Lazar's recent comparative example of cost of homes under various investment examples would help educate the many readers. Let the other guy pay for it--but keep my rent low!!

    The seeming simple answer--let the rich developer pay for the home construction, including the onsite City Street improvements, and for the offsite improvements--oh yes, don't forget the Impact Fees and then increase the utility bill and taxes to pay for maintenance. But make sure none of these increases will increase the cost more than 5% per year (total--rent must pay for all of this) and keep the cost so most anyone can afford to purchase or rent the new low-cost home.

    In this case the city is the rich developer that owned the land before donating it to the "low-cost housing program". Another option is for the city (us taxpayers) completes all of the offsite upgrades except for impact fees. But the increase in taxes will raise the cost of other rentals in Olympia. A vicious circle that cannot be solved with piece meal financing.

    Saturday, February 3 Report this

  • jimlazar

    It seems like most of the costs addressed here should have been well-understood by the developer at the outset of the project. It's not like the City standard for a street that can handle two cars passing each other (20 feet) is unusual.

    In fact, my own street, built by the developer who built my neighborhood, is 30 feet wide, allowing for parking on both sides AND for car to pass one another. Fortunately the City cut that down to 20 feet in a process 15 years ago that I was involved with. The Olympia Safe Streets Campaign proposed narrowing the street standard to make residential streets more human-scale, reduce driving speeds, and reduce costs to development.

    We originally proposed an 18-foot standard, as exists for some streets in Cooper Crest in NW Olympia. The City took fire and garbage trucks over to Cooper Crest, and we mimicked what would happen if the garbage truck had to pass the UPS truck -- something that really happens. The Fire Department initially wanted a wider standard, but in the end, the City agreed to 20-feet. That narrower 20-foot standard saves developers BOTH a bunch of money AND reduces the land they must dedicate to streets compared with the wider streets of the past.

    As for sidewalks, yes, "complete streets" are a standard for all new construction. Street trees, sidewalks, and street lighting. The developer should have known that. These requirements have been in place since at least 1994 -- thirty years ago. They were already in place when I served on the City's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) in 1995-99.

    If the developer was being asked to build sidewalks beyond the perimeter of the development, yes, that would be an off-site improvement. State law specifically requires that developers provide for "safe walking routes to school" and that CAN include off-site improvements on adjacent blocks. For example, when Briggs Village was built in SE Olympia in the 1990's, they were required to build a sidewalk along Pifer Street to connect the new neighborhood to Olympia High School. I don't see that as the case here.

    Yes, housing is expensive. That's because it costs a lot to do it right. I, for one, don't want new developments to immediately place a cost burden on the neighbors and other citizens in the City for improvements at the site of development. Those should be done while the equipment is on-site during initial construction, not left for the rest of us to pay for later.

    If you can't afford to do it right the first time, where are you going to get the money to do it over?

    Wednesday, February 7 Report this