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Housing, housing, housing. Tacoma City Council candidates address T-town’s hottest topic

Here are the candidates for the 2019 Tacoma City Council election

Here are the duties of Tacoma City Council members and the candidates for open seats in the 2019 election.
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Here are the duties of Tacoma City Council members and the candidates for open seats in the 2019 election.

How will Tacoma manage the balance between increasing growth and housing affordability?

It’s a key question facing candidates running for City Council in the 2019 election.

They have varying ideas on how to address it. Among them: implementing additional rights for renters, utilizing vacant land and increasing density.

Some candidates advocate for higher standards for developers, while others are wary about staunching growth that can boost Tacoma’s inventory shortfall.

Four City Council positions are up for grabs in November, two representing the city at-large and others representing Central Tacoma, Hilltop and the North End.

Voters will decide in the Aug. 6 primary which two of the three candidates for At-Large Position 7 will move on to the general election Nov. 5 when voters also will decide who will be elected to Positions 1, 3 and 8.

Candidates interviewed by The News Tribune this week weighed in on how Tacoma should handle its housing market, which was dubbed by real estate company Redfin in May as the nation’s “hottest.

The report also reminded local leaders of the city’s 3,000-unit shortage for all low-income households and concerns by longstanding residents that they’ll be priced out of their homes as rents increase.

Affordability needs to be top of mind for the area’s leaders, Ali Modarres, University of Washington-Tacoma’s director of Urban Studies and assistant chancellor for community partnerships, told The News Tribune’s Debbie Cockrell last month.

“If we create a displaced population that is outbid or cannot afford the property tax, then you’ll have people moving out,” Modarres said.

About 33,000 households in Tacoma pay at least 30 percent of their income on housing costs each month, according to the city’s Affordable Housing Action Strategy (AHAS). The cost of rental homes increased by nearly 40 percent since 1990. Tacoma’s owner-occupied housing rate stands at about 50 percent, according to the United States Census Bureau. The national average is 63.8 percent.

Hilltop and Central Tacoma

Affordable housing — specifically, acquiring more of it — is on the radar of all candidates, but perhaps the most for those running for the District 3 seat, where there’s a history of low-income households.

Incumbent Keith Blocker and challenger David Combs both bring personal experience with housing displacement to the table.

Blocker, 38, was elected to council in 2015 and is a managing partner at Archway Consulting Group. At a young age, Blocker’s family lived in public housing and were homeless for a time while his mother struggled with addiction, according to his campaign website.

Combs, 35, has owned a business on Hilltop for seven years and lived in Tacoma for 20 years. Last year, Combs said he was displaced after his apartment building was sold to a Seattle developer. Combs’ two pitbulls weren’t allowed in the building, and he had to move. He lived out of his business, Tshirt Men, for seven months as he sought something new.

After hearing other stories of displacement, Combs decided to run.

“When you see it start to happen in your own neighborhood, it starts to get really scary,” Combs said. “You start to see more minority-owned businesses close down, you start to see the homeless population steadily increase.”

When it comes to housing, the city has seen success in nonprofits that support low-income families, like the Tacoma Housing Authority and Mercy Housing, Blocker said in an email.

He added that providing tax incentives to builders creates more housing units.

“The more apartments and houses we have, the slower rents go up. It’s basic supply and demand,” Blocker said.

Combs is frustrated by the city’s tax breaks — specifically, the eight-year exemption. Tacoma has two multifamily property tax exemptions: the 12-year exemption requires a percentage of units be affordable, while the eight-year exemption does not.

“We have to start to focus on things that are proactive — things that protect our renters, with rent control and keep people who’ve owned their houses for decades from being pushed out because of property taxes,” Combs said. “That’s going to take different thinking in how we propose policy, as far as not allowing developers to dictate how we build our economy.”

North End

In North Tacoma, where households are historically of higher income, candidates Nathe Lawver and John Hines are vying for the District 1 seat being vacated by Councilman Anders Ibsen due to term limits.

Lawver, 43, has lived in the North End for 17 years and is the political director for Laborers Local 252. He says increased density and welcoming all types of housing will help Tacoma’s inventory shortfall.

Lawver added the city should invest in a local jobs program by hiring people out of “distressed” ZIP codes, where there’s less economic stability.

“We’re hiring Tacoma people, we’re putting Tacoma people to work using Tacoma tax dollars to help stabilize those families,” Lawver said. “We need more density, we need more units and we need jobs so that people are able to afford to be in those spaces.”

Hines, 36, also told The News Tribune that all types of housing are needed in Tacoma. A lifelong Tacoma resident, Hines works for Tacoma Public Schools as an instructional facilitator.

“People in my district often talk about we need more affordable housing — I’d be the one to say that we just need more housing,” Hines said.

Hines worries that completely eliminating the city’s eight-year tax exemption would cause developers to turn to areas outside the city instead, like Fircrest and University Place, which border District 1.

Hines suggested looking at undeveloped areas and mixed-use areas in the district and downtown.

“We’re seeing growth in Proctor, but James Center (and) Westgate … there’s no housing,” Hines said.

Citywide housing crisis

In 2018, the city declared an affordable housing crisis and adopted the Affordable Housing Action Strategy (AHAS).

The $70 million strategy outlines goals to produce 6,000 new housing units, preserve 2,300 existing affordable homes, take on anti-displacement measures and remove barriers to housing.

The city is working to implement the strategy this year, city housing division manager David Murillio said. So far, the council contributed $1.2 million to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which creates a dedicated stream of funding toward affordable housing projects.

At-Large District 7 incumbent Conor McCarthy, a private attorney, said the city has made great strides in tackling the affordable housing crisis through the AHAS.

“We have a really good strategy that’s comprehensive, that is results driven. Now it’s time to implement it and make sure the tools work for our city,” McCarthy said.

The city is currently looking at whether inclusionary zoning, or required affordable housing units, will work in certain areas, McCarthy said. He doesn’t want to see the eight-year tax exemption disappear, but perhaps used in certain parts of the city.

“The eight-year property tax exemption has helped housing be built in our city,” McCarthy said.

Courtney Love, a political activist and independent contractor running for the District 7 seat, would rather the city drop the eight-year exemption completely.

“We’re a hot spot,” said Love, 42. “Our housing market is the hottest in the country, so we can put up higher standards and people will still accept them and come here. I want people who respect us to work with us, and I think that when you’re the coolest kid in town, it doesn’t matter — your standards are going to be met.”

Love also wants to explore policies that would allow people to have the first option of returning to an apartment complex that’s being renovated.

“I’d like to see increased renters rights’ — ‘just cause’ is one of them,” Love said. “You have to have a reason to kick someone out of housing.”

Brett Johnson, also running for District 7, supports building more housing units to build stock before adding any new requirements for developers.

“Once the ball starts rolling, everybody else is going to follow and then those things can be implemented downstream,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a veteran and sales manager for a wood furniture company, also advocated for taking a deeper look at vacant city land for growth opportunity.

Similar comments arise in candidates for At-Large Position 8, where current Councilman Ryan Mello is vacating his seat due to term limits.

Kristina Walker, Downtown On the Go executive director, and John O’Loughlin, former environmental engineer for the city, are vying for the seat.

O’Loughlin, 57, said he’s seen little progress in housing solutions despite the city recognizing the need for policy changes in 2010.

“A lot of people I talk to are on fixed income,” O’Loughlin said. “They’re concerned about the prices, which drives up their taxes.”

O’Loughlin said he supports the city’s Housing Trust Fund and advocates for continuing to build new market rate housing so people moving to Tacoma don’t buy up existing housing stock. He also wants to strengthen the job base in Tacoma with more living-wage jobs.

Walker, 38, wants to explore support for renters, such as a rent increase notice.

“They are the fabric of our neighborhoods just like home owners,” she wrote in an email to The News Tribune. “Many renters live month-to-month and are one financial emergency or rent increase away from eviction.”

Walker suggests starting with building the Tacoma Housing Trust Fund and creating incentives for developers and policies that remove barriers.

“Tacoma is facing a tremendous amount of growth,” Walker said. “We have to make sure that growth doesn’t mean displacement.”

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