It's been three years in the making, and on Tuesday the City Council is set to vote on a long-term planning road map for the Tacoma Mall, designated as the second biggest regional growth center in the city behind the downtown core.
The city has these planning and land-use guides, known as subarea plans, in other areas. What's different here: The Tacoma Mall plan includes requiring affordable housing in large multifamily developments.
An amendment that passed the council last week mandates that any multifamily development with more than 15 units set aside at least 10 percent of those units that must be affordable to people making half of Tacoma's area median income — or folks who are making roughly $26,000 a year. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics, the council considers Tacoma's AMI to be roughly $52,000.
The requirement is known as inclusionary zoning. If the mall plan passes, it will be a first for the city of Tacoma. Councilman Chris Beale said the council could consider adding inclusionary zoning citywide as Tacoma continues to grow.
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So a developer who decides to build a 20-unit apartment building in the designated Tacoma Mall area would have to ensure that two of those units would be affordable for folks whose incomes are about $26,000 a year. "Affordable" also means people living in those units are only spending 30 percent of their income on rent.
Beale said while rents are lower in the Tacoma Mall area, so are incomes, and residents there are more heavily burdened with the costs of housing relative to what they make.
"So we have a pretty vulnerable community here," Beale said at last week's council meeting.
He said the goal is to avoid gentrification and keep people in their communities as Tacoma grows.
"We are going to see redevelopment, that redevelopment is not always pretty," Beale said. "This will allow for affordable units to be integrated in and not sort of segregated out."
Developers predictably have had concerns about inclusionary zoning. Affordable units that bring in less money in rent mean developers recoup less money on their investment.
"It will send the wrong message to people who are looking to invest," said Jessica Gamble of the Master Builders Association at last week's meeting. "The fact that it's called a mandatory inclusionary zoning is going to drop a red flag."
To offset that hardship for developers, the subarea plan allows for more density and taller buildings. The newest version of the subarea plan also cuts back the off-street parking requirement for developers who build multifamily projects in the mall area. For residential uses, developers now only have to include 0.5 parking stalls per unit, instead of one parking stall per unit.
And they don't have to build any off-street parking stalls for each affordable housing unit in the project.
"The average parking space, according to many studies, adds anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 to the cost of development per space, so ultimately it's the renters and tenants who are going to be paying those costs," Councilman Justin Camarata said.
There will eventually be an option for developers to pay a fee instead of including affordable housing in their projects, but that won't be available until the city does a study to determine what that fee should be. Previously, the fee was suggested to be $10,000. That figure will likely increase.
"Many of us believe $10,000 is not a proper fee in lieu, because you can't build anything for $10,000," Councilman Ryan Mello said.
Some residents who spoke at last Tuesday's meeting worried the 10-percent requirement doesn't create enough affordable units as the city faces a growing affordability crisis, underscored by the recent drama at the Tiki Apartments. Residents in the Tiki's 58 units, many of whom are disabled and poor, told the City Council they faced homelessness after the new property owner told them they had to leave.
The Tiki Tenants Organizing Committee said it is planning to show up to Tuesday's meeting and ask that affordable housing requirements like inclusionary zoning be implemented all across Tacoma, according to organizers.