At long last, Sarah Howe has some certainty.
And a new home.
This week, Howe finally was able to say conclusively where she’ll move next, answering a question that has hung over her since April. That’s when the new owners of the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma — planning a significant remodel — gave residents notices to vacate, some in less than a month’s time.
Howe is a woman of immense faith, so it’s no stretch to say her prayers were answered when she received official word Monday afternoon that she’d been approved to move into a new two-bedroom apartment in Lakewood.
“There’s nothing that I can say to express my gratitude,” Howe, who is blind and uses a wheelchair, said this week. “I don’t have the words. I’m so thankful.”
Beyond a higher power, Howe’s appreciation was directed toward an unlikely threesome — a Tacoma City councilman, a rental housing association representing more than 5,000 independent landlords, and a well-known local housing and homeless advocate.
All of them came together to help put a roof over Howe’s head. KING 5’s Natalie Swaby detailed the effort last week.
It started when City Councilman Conor McCarthy and Maureen Howard, a familiar champion for vulnerable individuals bearing the brunt of the area’s red-hot housing market, independently reached out to the Rental Housing Association of Washington regarding the crisis at the Tiki Apartments.
Specifically, McCarthy said he was looking for a place for Howe to go.
The RHAWA, according to executive director Sean Martin, is the “oldest and largest rental association in the state,” representing small, independent rental owners. Like many, Martin said he had an instant, visceral reaction when he heard about 58 units full of renters at the Tiki Apartments suddenly facing eviction.
So the calls fell on sympathetic ears. In short order, with help from RHAWA Deputy Director of Government Affairs Heather Pierce, the wheels were turning.
The first step, Martin said, was putting out a call to action to the RHAWA’s membership. Before long, one of the association’s members had identified a potential unit.
There was only one catch: the two-bedroom apartment rented for more than $1,000 a month, well beyond the $570 Howe pays at the Tiki, and greatly exceeding her limited, fixed income.
Undeterred, Martin said another call went out to the RHAWA’s membership, this time looking to raise money. It quickly generated nearly $7,000 in donations, or enough to help subsidize 12 months of Howe’s rent, as well as pay for her deposit and tenant screening costs.
All that remained was for Howe’s application to be approved.
On Monday afternoon, she got the good news.
“I was beaming all over,” Howe recalled.
“It’s been real hard on me, having to wait, having to wonder, ‘Am I going to be on the street, or am I going to be forced into assisted living?’” she continued.
“Finally, I get this approval. I can’t say it enough — I’m so happy.”
McCarthy correctly acknowledged this week that Howe was just one of many residents at the Tiki Apartments thrust into uncertainty by the callous disregard of a profit-minded developer, and that the problems the situation exposed run much deeper than one property.
Still, he said, helping Howe find a place to live was an effort he was pleased to be a part of.
“Her advocacy is compelling. Her story is compelling. It’s pretty classless to kick 100 people, many of whom are on fixed incomes, out on the street within a very short period of time,” McCarthy said. “She’s someone who was in desperate need of help, and who asked for help.
“We’re all public servants, and that’s our job.”
As for the saga of the Tiki Apartments, clearly, the work — and the lasting repercussions — don’t end here.
For one, according to the Tiki Tenants Organizing Committee, some residents at the Tiki Apartments have yet to find a new place to live, and the June 30 deadline is quickly approaching.
Furthermore, the issues that the situation at the Tiki Apartments helped shove to the forefront — like the need for more tenant protections in Tacoma — still desperately need attention from the City Council.
Meanwhile, while Howe’s next year of housing is secured, a long-term solution clearly needs to be found for her and others in similar situations.
McCarthy and Martin are hopeful an answer will emerge and believe cooperation between the private and public sectors — like the one that helped Howe find a home — will be essential in making it happen.
“This doesn’t fix the whole problem, but it shows that at least in this case the landlords are willing to help,” McCarthy said.
“So much of the rhetoric of some of these discussions is just divisive,” he continued. “This was about how can you bring together a landlord and a tenant? It’s a matchmaker environment.
“You can’t help a tenant who needs housing without a landlord.”
For her part, Howe is just waiting for an exterior ramp to be built at her new apartment to make it wheelchair accessible before she moves in. She's eagerly anticipating the day she can leave the Tiki for good, which is understandable given what she's been through.
As for what the experience has taught her, Howe said the last two months have been overwhelming, and the lessons — some of them painful — are still fresh.
“I had a reality check that there are no guarantees in life. Everybody always said, ‘Oh don’t worry. You’re blind. You’ll always be protected.’ That’s not so. And it’s a sad realization,” Howe said.
“The good thing is there are people out there and they care. They really, really care,” she continued.
“And that’s a nice realization.”