Olympia offers to collaborate with school district to address declining enrollment, affordable housing crisis

Eyes OSD’s property for land banking project


The Olympia City Council and school leaders discussed potential partnerships through land use planning and housing development initiatives that could help solve the declining enrollment challenges faced by the school district and the affordable housing crisis impacting the city.

At Thursday's joint meeting between the city council and the Olympia School District (OSD), OSD Supt. Patrick Murphy highlighted the declining enrollment numbers, which have dropped nearly 7% overall since 2019 - 2020. He said younger grade levels have been particularly impacted, with a 13% decrease at the elementary level.

Rising kindergarteners

Citing school data, Murphy said the past enrollment trends were where OSD experienced years when the size of incoming kindergarten classes exceeded the number of children born locally. These suggested periods of population growth through migration into the area, with families relocating to Olympia and enrolling their young children in schools alongside the cohorts of children born within the district boundaries.

However, Murphy noted that the number of kindergartens has declined more recently. He said this decline partially stems from lower birth rates.

"When I first arrived in Olympia School District seven years ago, we were averaging kindergarten cohorts of about 700 kids. And now, they've been around 565 to 570 in the last couple of years. We have about 130 fewer kids coming into those younger grades. And moving up, the whole system gets smaller," Murphy said.

"What we've been hearing from a lot of people is that they can't afford to live in Olympia anymore," OSD Director Maria Flores said, adding that the surrounding school districts were also having similar struggles.

Housing challenges

At the meeting, the director of Housing and Homeless Response, Darian Lightfoot, provided an overview of the city's efforts to address the affordable housing crisis and potential partnerships between the two agencies.

She outlined various incentives the city offers developers, including financial incentives like impact fee reductions, regulatory incentives like reduced parking minimums, and the city's Multi-Family Tax Exemption program.

The housing director mentioned Olympia's strategy, land banking, where the city purchases land to sell at a reduced cost to nonprofit partners who develop "deeply affordable" housing units available for people living at 30% of the area median income.

She said the city has worked with Interfaith Works and Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and built permanently supportive housing units on Martin Way, Unity Commons Phase 1. The city sold the land to their partners for $1. "They were able to build affordable units and serve people struggling to get inside."

They did the same thing with the Family Support Center and Habitat for Humanity project, which is working on and developing more than 100 units of affordable homeownership at 3900 Boulevard Road.

The city continues the cyclical process of finding land and a partner to add units to the community.

Possible partnership

Lightfoot suggested that the city and the OSD could explore partnerships involving land use. She noted that the city would be interested in collaborating if the school board had surplus properties suitable for developing housing units within its portfolio.

Olympia City Manager Jay Burney emphasized that affordable housing is one of the city's biggest needs.

Burney explained that when properties become available on the open market, they could be converted into market-rate units. However, their best opportunity to build deeply affordable housing is land banking. He said that by purchasing available land, the city could sell it to developers at a steep discount. This deep discount on the land cost allows housing projects targeting extremely low-income residents to remain financially feasible for builders.

"If you have surplus properties before you move to put them on the market unnecessarily, we'd love to talk to you about partnerships for those pieces of property that are surplus to you before they hit the open market," Burney told the school leaders.

Lightfoot explained that with various funding sources expected to become available, the city can strategically target specific demographic groups. She noted grants dedicated to family housing development, veterans housing, and senior housing.

Lightfoot said the city and school district could better position themselves to leverage relevant funding sources by identifying priority demographics. For example, she noted that if the school board felt housing for families would most advance their community objectives, the city could design potential projects on school land in a way that aligns with family-oriented grant opportunities.

Councilmember Dani Madrone recognized the severe lack of housing options for families in Olympia. She noted that using land banking strategies, where the city obtains property control, allows them to determine what type of housing gets developed.

If the school board prioritized seeing more units built for families, Madrone offered that the city could collaborate on projects tailored to that goal.

OSD Board President Hilary Seidel expressed openness on partnership opportunities. She said they are familiar with the concept of land banking and also engage by acquiring properties to anticipate future student population shifts.

She mentioned that some district land cannot currently support housing due to a lack of sewer access, but state programs could help fund such infrastructure for affordable projects.

Seidel emphasized the district's need for partnership with the city and the county, given their overlapping boundaries and shared concerns, such as transportation and community resources.


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  • northbeachcomm

    This was a good article. We appreciate hearing these details regarding the City of OLY.

    This city is becoming more and more expensive to live in, we have seen this for the past 5 years especially.

    Several of our retired neighbors have moved elsewhere. They cannot afford to live here.

    High taxes in OLY. are one issue in this city.

    We need HUD HOUSING, Low income housing.

    Multi-family TAX Exemptions to Rich Developers is one reason are taxes are higher in this town.

    The current City Council loves to give the Rich Developers more and more money. (See the fancy buildings

    on Budd Inlet, that only rich people have the money to live in.)

    The City gives the rich developers tax exemptions, the rest of us tax payers have to "pick up the slack",

    because the rich developers do not have to pay real estate taxes!

    The City Council is proud of this.

    We need to vote these people out of office.

    Saturday, May 4 Report this

  • BobJacobs

    It is good to see the city focusing on subsidized housing for people who need assistance. That is a proper city role.

    Market-rate housing is an entirely different animal. When the city tries to affect it, all they accomplish is to reduce our quality of life and subsidize wealthy developers.

    Let's realize that our housing shortage is not unique. It is part of a nationwide phenomenon that results from the bankers' 2008 misdeeds. It will take years to catch up.

    And please let's realize that Olympia is not an island in the middle of the ocean. The housing market is regional. Did we not learn that from our recent experience with the run-up in housing prices? Housing built anywhere in our general area benefits Olympia the same as housing built within city limits.

    In general, we need more realistic and sophisticated thinking.

    Bob Jacobs

    Saturday, May 4 Report this

  • jimlazar

    The student shortfall is statewide, not just local. It's not related to housing cost, but to a declining fertility rate.

    The official state population forecast shows that our school-age population will not again ready 2020 levels again until 2040. It's got nothing to do with housing.

    I agree with Bob Jacobs: when the City subsidizes market-rate housing, all they do is drive up the cost of housing and taxes for the rest of us.

    The official state forecast shows the age 5-9 population declining from 465,000 in 2024 down to 452,000 in 2029. That decline will then show up in middle schools after 2029, and high schools after 2023. https://ofm.wa.gov/sites/default/files/public/dataresearch/pop/stfc/stfc_2023.xlsx

    This is good, We won't need any new school construction bonds for a long time, providing some property tax relief when previously issued bonds are paid off.

    Saturday, May 4 Report this

  • tattooednumbers

    This approach will continue to raise property taxes for existing residents. Your lead quote about “what we’ve been hearing…Flores — will only become a larger issue with this approach.

    The City will also be losing revenue from their portion of the property sale excise tax when asking for properties to be sold off the open market and at deep discount. How will those dollars be replaced? What’s the plan? When tax breaks & impacts fees are waived for developers of these low income properties they will be passed to residential home owners. You are creating your own vicious cycle.

    I agree with Mr. Jacobs - City of Olympia planners and elected officials continue to approach larger more regional issues at a hyper local level without creative or experienced approaches.

    The City continues to build its economic base on the backs of residential property tax payers.

    Saturday, May 4 Report this

  • Deanima

    I agree with Bob & Jim that providing incentives for market-rate housing transfers costs to taxpayers. I disagree with their opposition to it, and think they are being a bit narrow-minded and short-sighted. As taxpayers, we impose costs on ourselves and others for the long-term good of our community. We have environmental regulations which increase development costs and (thankfully) limit how and where development can occur. Those increased costs are for the good of our environment. Those costs get passed on to all of us through increased building costs, and opportunity costs. Who cares if developers benefit from the incentive programs? Although, as I said, there is indeed a transfer, it's such a short-term, and dare I say, not-so-subtle nuanced socio-political statement (those scoundrel developers!) in the guise of tax-shift accounting. The proof is in the pudding. Look at OIympia’s skyline. Housing is happening that would not have happened without the MFTEs. A 12-year tax break for housing that will be there for a hundred years. Seems like a win for the community to me, assuming you care about the next generation as much as your own.

    Monday, May 6 Report this

  • MikePelly

    These points in story speak volumes about our unaffordable housing problems, "various incentives the city offers developers, including financial incentives like impact fee reductions, regulatory incentives like reduced parking minimums, and the city's Multi-Family Tax Exemption program."Incentives to build market rate apartments only benefit institutional investors. We need to promote owner occupied housing that will enable owners to build up personal equity instead of making fat cats even fatter.

    Tuesday, May 7 Report this