Rising rents already are driving people out of Tacoma’s Hilltop. Some worry the extension of Tacoma Link will exacerbate that exodus.
Expected to start service in 2022, the Tacoma Link Extension will run light rail another 2.4 miles from its current terminus in the Theater District up through the Stadium District and then onto the Hilltop, where it will reach down Martin Luther King Jr. Way to South 19th Street.
City and Sound Transit officials chose that alignment, in part, to boost the prospects of a traditionally under-served neighborhood.
Sound Transit noted in December 2015 that the Link would “serve ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. Within one-quarter mile of the alignment, the population is 40 percent minority, 25 percent low income and 30 percent of households have no vehicle.”
In the fall of that year, the transit agency touted the extension as a way “to spur economic development and other types of investment.”
But Tacoma’s rapidly waning affordability has hit the Hilltop hard. Housing costs are rising significantly there, forcing people to leave.
Between 2010 and 2015, 35 percent of African American residents moved out of the neighborhood, said William Towey, a lecturer at University of Washington Tacoma and financial empowerment program manager for Tacoma Urban League.
We’ve already seen elements of gentrification set in in the Hilltop. This is a historic community, and there used to be a time when a lot of the black families owned properties up there and lived in the Hilltop, and now we just don’t own like we used to. It’s almost like long range planners planned us out of the progress
The Rev. Toney Montgomery, president, Tacoma Ministerial Alliance
Some people believe more are sure to follow when the Link extension is completed.
“We’ve already seen elements of gentrification set in in the Hilltop,” said the Rev. Toney Montgomery, president of the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance. “This is a historic community, and there used to be a time when a lot of the black families owned properties up there and lived in the Hilltop, and now we just don’t own like we used to.
“It’s almost like long range planners planned us out of the progress. So with the coming of light rail, it’s going to be a boon for Tacoma, and I would just like to see the plan include raising everyone up instead of allowing some to go up and pushing others out.”
Towey published his master’s thesis this year on the potential role of nonprofits in keeping communities from being disenfranchised when the forces of gentrification go to work. Much of his research centered on the Hilltop and the hopes and anxieties of local leaders as the area prepares for light rail. The Link extension is expected to bring hundreds of new apartment units, additional retail and an influx of wealth.
“Certainly the economic impact on the Hilltop of the recession, and now, the implementation of light rail, is dramatically changing the area,” Towey said in an interview. “In Pierce County, and certainly in the city of Tacoma, the percentage of white-only population is decreasing, which is a national trend, but in Hilltop it’s increasing.”
Rising rents are exacerbating that change, he said.
“Five years ago a two-bedroom housing unit on Hilltop was $800 a month. Now you’re talking about $1,200 to $1,400 a month — that’s a massive shift in the type of renter,” Towey said. “I think some people are very excited and positive and upbeat about it, and some people are equally concerned and feel disconnected from the process.”
Look no further that mayor-elect Victoria Woodards for an example.
On the campaign trail, Woodards frequently told a story about her mother, who rented a two-story house with a full basement on the Hilltop for 24 years, but recently had to move. The landlord wanted to sell, Woodards said, and her mother couldn’t afford to stay. She ended up in a two-bedroom apartment that costs one-and-a-half times the rent she had paid for that two-story house.
“We had to move her, and we had to find a place for her to move to, which was not easy,” Woodards said in an interview on the Citizen Tacoma podcast. “You know it personally, and as I talk to people in our community — people who work in our community should be able to live in our community.”
Other people have been moving out of the Hilltop for years, opting for big, new, affordable apartment complexes near the Tacoma Mall and its transit center, Towey said.
With the cost of living already rising, the looming light rail and all the new money it will bring has some residents wringing their hands.
“That’s one of the biggest concerns that I’m hearing,” said City Councilman Keith Blocker, whose district includes the Hilltop. “The struggle is people have been wanting to see the revitalization of the Hilltop for decades now, and now that it’s happening, we’re recognizing there are going to be some unintended consequences.”
What to do?
The city wasn’t blind to the creep of gentrification and displacement that can accompany investments like light rail, so it created the Hilltop Engagement Committee to keep residents informed and involved and help people get linked up to the economic opportunities that come with a massive transit project.
But the explosion of the housing market wasn’t something city leaders had predicted, said Lauren Walker Lee, a former two-term councilwoman who represented the Hilltop and was appointed to fill the last year of Woodards’ term on the council after she left to run for mayor.
“The market just snuck up on us, and now housing prices are higher than we ever thought they’d be, and it’s like we’ve lost control,” Walker Lee said. “The City Council needs to, and the staff need to, have that in mind with the Hilltop community and make sure that the financial resources are there so that affordable housing and mixed-use housing can be built in the Hilltop.”
Blocker and Walker Lee said the biggest player with the most power to keep the Hilltop affordable is the Tacoma Housing Authority. The agency is buying up properties in the Hilltop as often as its budget allows before prices soar higher.
Executive director Michael Mirra said the Housing Authority plans to develop a mix of affordable and market-rate units, located above retail in the Hilltop, using the different financial tools it has at its disposal. The agency also has its eye on a few parcels that aren’t for sale yet, Mirra said.
The market just snuck up on us, and now housing prices are higher than we ever thought they’d be, and it’s like we’ve lost control
Councilwoman Lauren Walker Lee
“Tacoma Housing Authority feels a mix of excitement and apprehension about the Hilltop — excitement that after decades of disappointed hopes, we think it’s about to blossom,” Mirra said. “The challenge now is to promote the prosperity of Hilltop, but to make it a shared prosperity.”
With residential rents are rising as fast as they are, “you cannot rely on the market to make the prosperity a shared one,” he said.
“We can anticipate what’s going to happen, that in five or 10 years, the only affordable housing in the Hilltop and the only retail that’s available at affordable rents is what we now succeed in building and buying,” Mirra said.
Montgomery, the pastor, said he wants to see more efforts like the city’s apprenticeship training program, which he said provides local people with valuable job training.
“If we had more intentional efforts like that, I don’t think you would hear any kind of complaints,” he said. “It has to be intentional.”
From a policy perspective, Blocker and Walker Lee said it might be time for Tacoma to end its 8-year multi-family property-tax break, which is available to developers who build strictly market-rate housing. Instead, they said, the city should only offer the 12-year tax break, which comes with a requirement that 20 percent of the units be affordable to households making 80 percent of the area’s median income.
Still, area median income on the Hilltop is lower than Tacoma’s and Pierce County’s, Towey said. The city would be best served by adjusting the standard so housing units built on the Hilltop must be affordable for people making 80 percent, or less, of that particular neighborhood’s median income.
We can anticipate what’s going to happen, that in five or 10 years, the only affordable housing in the Hilltop and the only retail that’s available at affordable rents is what we now succeed in building and buying
Michael Mirra, executive director, Tacoma Housing Authority
Walker Lee said there are ways the city could do that through policy.
Before she leaves the council at the end of the year, Walker Lee is pushing to make Section 8 voucher holders a protected class in Tacoma, so landlords can’t discriminate against them based on where their rent money comes from from, as they currently can.
The city and Walker Lee are also working with the Housing Authority to provide financial incentives to landlords who open their units to people who receive public aid to help pay their rent. That could include paying a security deposit, or some other incentive.
The Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8, provides a subsidy for very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled to help them find rental housing in the private market. The family or household usually contributes at least 30 percent of its income each month, and the housing authority voucher pays the rest, up to a certain point.
Such efforts won’t solve everything, Mirra said. Landlords still would be able to deny renters because of their credit history and other factors.
Also, about 3,000 people are on the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher in Tacoma, Mirra said.