That we have what Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra calls an affordable housing “crisis” in this city and throughout Pierce County is not a new revelation.
Dire warnings are old news. In fact, it was almost five years ago now that the City Council-appointed Affordable Housing Policy Advisory Group issued policy recommendations, backed up by reams of grim statistics detailing the over 22,000 affordable housing units Tacoma will need for rent-burdened families by 2030.
“In summary,” the 2010 report noted, “the city of Tacoma currently has a very serious shortage of affordable housing for its residents. This shortage will likely worsen over the next 20 years.”
Unfortunately, not much has changed. But this week represents a chance to start dealing with the problem.
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On Wednesday, after roughly two years of work, the city’s Planning Commission will sign off on a package of policy initiatives and recommendations designed to increase housing affordability throughout the city.
The package, which the City Council is scheduled to act on later this year, will have two parts. Generally speaking, both were inspired by the housing advisory group’s recommendations.
Here’s where things get tricky, however.
There has been more than enough hand-wringing and hollering over a collection of density infill strategies that will make it easier for developers to build duplexes, accessory dwelling units and mother-in-law apartments in traditionally single-family neighborhoods. The AHPAG endorsed these changes as a small step in dealing with the much larger issue.
“It’s the stuff that’s in the realm of lower case ‘a’ affordable housing,” Chris Beale, chairman of the Planning Commission, tells me of the infill strategies.
But the small stuff has prompted big outrage. You may recall the hundreds of angry citizens, most of them from Proctor and other North Tacoma neighborhoods, jam packing a Tacoma planning commission meeting in August. A firestorm of criticism over infill strategies — and the six-story Proctor Station project that some critics’ have mistakenly adopted as a poster child — lasted four hours, with the Planning Commission bearing the brunt of it.
The fury seems to be making city officials gun-shy.
But lost in the controversy is the stuff that might actually make substantive headway — incentives and requirements for developers to include affordable housing in future developments. While we’ve spent our time as a community bickering over duplexes and mother-in-law apartments, the meat of the AHPAG’s recommendations and the planning commission proposals that address them have gone largely unscrutinized.
This is the part you probably haven’t heard nearly enough about. It includes density bonuses for the voluntary inclusion of affordable housing units in larger developments, and mandates the inclusion of affordable housing when developers request zoning changes to build more densely.
It’s here where legitimate gains stand to be made. And it’s here, unfortunately, where the proposals that will emerge this week — while admirable, and certainly a step in the right direction — may not go far enough.
For the first time ever, Beale says he expects density and floor area bonuses for the inclusion of affordable housing to be part of the mix. That’s great news.
But affordable housing advocates warn the incentives won’t be strong enough to get developers’ attention.
Meanwhile, Beale tell me rules mandating the inclusion of affordable housing with an upzone request should also be included, which is fantastic.
But, as the AHPAG sees it, without more incentives put on top of that — like height bonuses — that stand to make such projects financially feasible for developers, it won’t do much good.
“It’s just one of those issues that’s really difficult to deal with,” Beale says of the dreaded h-word. “Anything right now dealing with building heights, for some reason it’s one of those items you can’t touch.”
Needless to say, that’s unfortunate.
In a Sept. 8 letter to the Planning Commission, Mirra and AHPAG co-chair Gary Pederson spoke for the advisory group. “We are disappointed that its proposals do not fully adopt AHPAG’s recommendations and in some cases appear to affirmatively weaken their intended effect,” the letter states. “Unless strengthened ... the AHPAG cannot support the mandatory inclusion proposals in their present form.”
As of now, Mirra tells me his fears have not been remedied and whether AHPAG will ultimately support the proposal isn’t clear.
Of course, there’s a chance that could change by Wednesday. And, luckily, there will also be an opportunity for the City Council to strengthen the proposals before approving them in the coming months.
Wednesday, in other words, isn’t the end of the line.
But whether our elected officials will have the will to make these changes now — given the political climate surrounding height and density in Tacoma — remains the biggest question of all.
Want to go?
What: Tacoma Planning Commission meeting on affordable housing proposals.
When: Wednesday at 4 p.m.
Where: Council Chambers, 747 Market Street, 1st floor.