Tacoma’s touted ‘workforce housing’ project makes changes to be available to more buyers

When news broke last year of a new housing development in Tacoma with homes priced below $300,000, interest was swift.

The Preserve, the neighborhood local developers Green Harbor Communities is building on land near Charlotte’s Blueberry Park, eventually will be home to 73 single family homes.

The site was formerly owned by the Tacoma Public Schools.

After the initial announcement, the local developers’ goal of “workforce housing” even earned a mention in The Washington Post.

What’s it been like since then?

“Since day one, I’ve been talking about this as a social experiment that we’re trying out,” said Michael Pressnall, one of the developers with Green Harbor Communities.

As social experiments go, this one’s been tough.

While there’s no question about the need for affordable housing in Tacoma, being the pioneers in bringing it to a site that’s trying to make a comeback is easier said than done.

As seen in other parts of the county, construction sites have become targets for theft and other activity, and as sites go, this one is particularly large and difficult to monitor given its dense woods.

“We were spending a kind of a insane amount of energy and time trying to make it safe for the people who were trying to help work with us,” said Pressnall. “So it slowed us down.”

But, they say, things are slowly turning around, with stepped-up police efforts and more attention being given to the project from its neighbors.

Pressnall, his business partner Nichole Strivens-Pressnall and their development partner Bill Rehe recently sat down with The News Tribune for an interview about the status of project.

When the initial announcement was made last year seeking interested buyers, more than 500 people reached out to the developers, according to Pressnall.

Eligibility to apply to buy at that time included total household income of applicants set at $75,000 or less and working within 15 miles of the site.

“About 20 percent of that was out of the $75,000 mark,” Pressnall said, “And then we actually had a pretty significant number that were out of the 15-mile range.”

The project’s requirements for interested buyers has since shifted, opening up potential buy-in to more individuals, not just those working within 15 miles of Tacoma, and making adjustments to income restrictions.

“We’re learning as we go,” Pressnall said, which meant changing their rule restricting qualified buyers to working within 15 miles, for example.

“We took that pretty seriously,” he added. “Unfortunately, we said no to a whole bunch of people who are retired and don’t have jobs, so they can’t work within 15 miles.

“And if you look at the baby boomers ... it costs them more to go into a retirement home or community than for them to stay in their home. We are an option for the downsizing and the empty-nesters. So we’re going to open it up.”

In a statement, GHC describes its new terms: “Through our interactions with over 500 interested buyers, we have learned that a lot of people are being excluded from buying a home because of crippling debt. GHC’s desire is to provide quality housing for a segment of buyers that are often overlooked or outpriced because they are being responsible and paying their debts and taking care of their responsibilities.”

“Based on feedback from potential buyers, GHC is making an exception for buyers. The income restriction is being modified from individuals or families strictly making up to $75,000 to ‘$75K with an asterisk.’ This opens it up to individuals who may be making more but also are facing childcare costs, medical bills, student loan debt or child support payments.”

They’ve also designed new brochures featuring the cottages, which range from 950-1,250 square feet, and a site map.

Hope for transformation

The property through the years has tackled trespassers and homelessness, given the lack of lighting in the large wooded area. Safety issues came to a head publicly most recently with frustrated neighbors speaking out at a June Safe Streets meeting.

Part of the reason for The Preserve, the developers say, is to help lift up the area around it while helping add affordable homes to the local market.

The design of the neighborhood aims to protect tree canopy and also preserve 22 acres of wetlands, hence its name.

Green Harbor’s plan is to bring affordable housing through its leasehold program, where The Preserve signs a 99-year lease with the homeowner, with auto-renewal of another 99 years to encourage individuals to create legacy properties passed on through generations, and to keep owners from buying in low and selling high.

When owners pass the homes down to family members or sell, new buyers will face the same qualifying terms as the original buyers.

“I grew up in South Tacoma,” said Strivens-Pressnall. “So this this is my neighborhood These are my people. To be able to give back and have relationships ... regardless of what we’re doing, it’s life-changing. So we’re hoping that on top of that, you know, the bigger picture is that we can provide them some safety and security throughout the rest of their life.”

But it’s a vast swath of property with dense woods, and so far there hasn’t been strong enough, or tall enough, barriers to keep trespassers out.

The developers have been reliant on the site’s neighbors and in turn, Tacoma police, to basically help them preserve The Preserve.

Pressnall first called public attention to the site’s issues during the June 11 City Council meeting’s citizens forum and noted that delays related to dealing with the on-site activity and putting their building crew on pause had been costly.

Strivens-Pressnall said they also had to work to gain the trust of the neighbors. “Our neighbors are essential. When you go in to buy a property like this, you have to have them on your side. And so at first you know, it was just us going in there to get them on our side.”

Sandra Ford, a nearby resident who is active in the local Safe Streets program, recently accompanied a News Tribune reporter to show the progress and challenges at the site.

Reinforcement efforts, Ford said, starts with what residents do to help keep the park and surrounding area safe.

“It takes a lot of volunteers,” she said. “Because this is a big area. But we get a group of four to six, whoever we can get ... and do a walkthrough. We come and pick up garbage, and look to see if we find any homeless.”

If they do, they contact the parks department and the police.

“We try to do our best to work with the parks department so people can come and feel safe and pick blueberries,” Ford added.

Indeed, that day the park had many people with their buckets to pick blueberries.

Pressnall said that “if there’s anything going on the property. Our phone blows up. They’re there watching out.”

Other improvements, such as clearing out road space to drive into the property as opposed to walking it to make safety checks, and more fencing, should improve the work site.

Ford and her neighbors remain vigilant.

Trespassers, she said, “just have no respect.”

“We wish we could do more. It’s sad. They’re trying to do something good for the community and build these houses.”

What’s not sad, she added, is the neighborhood has rallied to protect the park and The Preserve. And it’s a constant effort.

“They are really on watch now,” she said.

Ford noted that she’s even been confronted by neighbors looking out for The Preserve, until they realized she also was a resident.

“They recognized my voice,” she said. “They were like, ‘Oh, it’s just Sandra. It’s OK.’”

Trouble at construction sites

The site is not the only one that’s suffered problems with on-site activity, particularly theft.

The issue has escalated enough regionally that Master Builders Pierce County recently announced a joint effort with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department on a theft prevention program.

Scott Walker of Rush Residential and vice president of MBA Pierce, said that once items are stolen, builders try to track them on public forums such as Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp and Craigslist.

“In one instance, pictures of the thieves were posted on Facebook, and a neighbor responded identifying the criminal. Cross referencing the photos to items listed for sale on OfferUp, an arrest was made in Graham and thousands of dollars of products were recovered,” Walker said via email.

He noted that all areas of the county are affected, “especially Puyallup, Spanaway and Gig Harbor.”

At least one new-construction site seen on a street near The Preserve had tall chain link fencing around it for security.

For other projects, the road to development has been a bit smoother.

A Habitat for Humanity project at East 82nd and Sherwood streets near The Preserve so far has been lucky with no incidents, according to Sherrana Kildun, Chief Development Officer with Tacoma/Pierce Habitat for Humanity.

While the entrance to that site is fenced, she noted that it also has neighbors close by and not as much surrounding open space. The project is in a predevelopment phase now. Kildun said construction is expected to start in about two to three years, bringing 13 new single-family homes spread over multiple parcels.

“We’re excited to come to the neighborhood,” she said, “and to help meet the need for affordable housing.”

What’s next?

Back at The Preserve, Rehe emphasized the importance for Tacoma to make this work.

“The Tacoma Affordable Housing Action Strategy is looking at building about 6,000 homes in 10 years. So if you divide that number and assume that’s, you know, spread out over each of those years, then we’re building 12 percent of one of the year’s worth of goals,” Rehe said. “The point is, one development of this style and location can have a huge impact.”

“As opposed to 80 percent traditional, 20 percent affordable,” Pressnall said. “All of this is affordable. ... with guaranteed long-term affordability in perpetuity.”

Once The Preserve is up and running, the developers hope to keep the idea of workforce housing going.

Seattle suburbs, Puyallup and Olympia are all possibilities. Pressnall said they’ve heard from 10 different cities and a couple of states seeking similar projects from them.

But first, they need to finish their Tacoma flagship. A recent Facebook response from GHC on the Blueberry Park Safe Streets page noted that work “should be starting soon again” on the site.

Ford is excited about the possibilities once The Preserve is up and running and has people living in the new homes. She envisions a dog park in an open space at the edge of the park to be used by everyone near the planned neighborhood.

It’s the same spot, she noted, where the developers made their original presentation to the neighbors about the property.

We were kind of skeptical at first,” Ford said. “But the more we had conversation with them, the more we’re like, ‘Hey, this is a great idea to utilize that property, you know, to do something good with it.’”

During the walk, she stopped to look at the community garden next to the park’s new playground, built this year. The playground was full of kids playing.

“It’s good to see people out here. I love it. You know, I love it,” she said. “As long as we stay on it. I think it’ll work. I’m hoping it will work. I want it to work.”

So far the developers said they have 13 buyers pre-approved and expect interest to grow with the revamped requirements for home ownership.

“I’m a Tacoma girl,” Strivens-Pressnall told The News Tribune. “We understand what people go through because we are human, and we’re not trying to lose touch with that, and that’s why we are focusing this kind of sensitivity toward our buyers. Because it’s just not fair what society does.”

For more information or to apply for a home site on The Preserve, go to https://greenharborcommunities.com/