Tacoma is starving for affordable housing, and efforts to fill the void are lagging

Next week it will be one year since Tacoma’s Affordable Housing Action Strategy was published and presented to the City Council.

Already, it’s brought a housing trust fund and different policy rollouts, with the work spread across 12 tactical teams in city government.

For all its progress, the fact remains: Tacoma’s need for affordable housing is growing each year, and the pace of adding new units is woefully lagging demand.

The local housing authority’s wait list for affordable units is set to open again next month. Thousands already are waiting, and that number is expected to grow.

Brandon Wirth, media representative for Tacoma Housing Authority, put the affordable housing supply in Tacoma this way: “If this were food, there would be a widespread malnutrition with pockets of starvation.”

Against that backdrop, it’s worth examining what the city’s Affordable Action Strategy has accomplished, and how much is left to do.

Action Strategy

There’s been a culture shift within departments when it comes to housing, according to Daniel Murillo, the city’s Housing Division manager. People who once operated in silos are cooperating more than ever, Murillo said.

Now we are really talking to each other, whether partnering with TPU or figuring out how we can coordinate our rental assistance and utility assistance or how can we work cross departmentally to streamline permitting to get online quicker,” he said. “This has broken those walls impacting most if not all departments in the city.”

That has led to positive momentum with some of the Action Strategy’s recommendations, such as coordinating existing programs, such as the city’s Single-Family Rehabilitation Program and utility assistance and weatherization programs available through Tacoma Public Utilities, with ongoing code compliance efforts.

Work to that end ties in the home loan repair program to help people tackle deferred maintenance and stay in their homes, particularly senior and disabled residents.

The loans can help people afford to fix leaky roofs, add handrails, weatherize homes and fix furnaces to gain energy efficiency.

“In some cases, we’re talking decades of deferred maintenance,” Murillo said.

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City of Tacoma

Other important parts of the strategy have moved forward, such as passage of the rental housing code, seeding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund with $1.2 million, providing relocation assistance, approval of accessory dwelling units and, most recently, adoption at the Sept. 17 council meeting of a surplus land policy amendment to increase prioritization of affordable housing and equity in sales/disposition of such property, ahead of economic development.

This was to address a policy gap that came to a head in the spring as the council grappled with approving the renegotiated development terms of apartments next to the downtown library as it related to redevelopment of public property.

Growth at expense of affordability

What’s daunting is what’s left.

Tacoma Housing Authority, which issued its latest affordable housing report Sept. 11, estimates that beyond Tacoma’s already existing housing, 22,297 additional affordable units are needed in the city now.

Compare that with its figures from last April, which put additional units needed at that time at 22,071.

By THA’s estimate in the latest report, existing and future need for affordable units for Tacoma would climb to 50,683 units by 2040.

THA also estimated the city’s existing affordable units now: 6,614, which includes units and rental assistance vouchers.

For Wirth, the numbers are clear: “A large segment can’t afford their housing.”

The pace of growth in Tacoma, while impressive, has the city grappling with ways to boost its affordable housing numbers at a more rapid pace.

THA is opening its wait list for affordable housing during a two-week period in October (details at bottom of story).

Wirth told The News Tribune that in 2015, the last time the wait list was open, just under 10,000 applied.

Since then, 13,000 have asked to sign up to be notified when the wait list opens again.

After the wait list enrollment period ends, a lottery will select about 1,200 households for the list, which is the number THA says it can serve in two years.

Wirth said the new sign-up will give THA a fresh set of demographic data to better understand what barriers people are facing in affording housing here.

“Our mission is to house those most in need,” he said. “While we work with agencies working directly with homeless, we often hear in community meetings, what about that person working two jobs and still can’t afford housing here? What do they do?”

Incentive investment

The Tacoma-Seattle apartment building boom continues to put a spotlight on affordability, with median two-bedroom rents now in the Tacoma area at around $1,480.

A slide that accompanied an August presentation to the council listed the upper end of market rate in Tacoma for a two-bedroom unit at $2,700.

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City of Tacoma

Tacoma’s multifamily property tax exemption program includes two versions offering a tax break to developers over either eight years or 12 years. The 12-year version calls for 20 percent of a project’s units to be affordable at 80 percent or less of Pierce County’s area median income.

According to a presentation made to council members in August, about 201 additional affordable units are expected to be ready for market in the next three years through the program.

That presentation was part of a larger discussion on ways developers could be persuaded to build more affordable housing through the program as part of the Affordable Housing Action Strategy.

Council member Robert Thoms said at the meeting he wasn’t convinced the multifamily tax credits had served as the best tools to boost affordable housing.

“As I have recalled, these were put in to incentivize investment, not whether you had good housing stock at one level versus another,” Thoms said.

He was critical of the low number of affordable units that had been produced, shown in the presentation’s slides.

“That’s troublesome to me, considering how much we’ve talked about affordable housing.”

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City of Tacoma

Council member Chris Beale also reflected on the eight-year credit during the meeting and the public’s frustration with it.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to rein in what appears to be subsidies for luxury housing, and that’s the way the community perceives it,” Beale said at the August meeting. “But when the city gets involved in giving out tax exemptions for those type of projects, it looks like subsidies for luxury housing when we have an affordable housing crisis.”

He added, “I still think there can be value in the eight-year if we tailor it the right way.”

Council member Ryan Mello, also at the meeting, said the attraction of Tacoma as a housing market should serve to improve the deals struck with developers as a result.

This is not the marketplace of 20 years ago, where we were absolutely begging for any kind of development,” Mello said at the meeting. I would love us to maybe turn the corner a little bit about what we’re willing to ask of everybody and have more confidence in our market.”

The future

As was pointed out at the council meetings, there’s no quick fix to achieve all policy goals with one type of adjustment or another to the multifamily tax exemption.

There were multiple suggestions from various council members as to what could be tried. Among them:

Having the eight-year participants pay into the Housing Trust Fund.

Seeing how other municipalities structure their incentives.

Varying the incentives based on location.

Tie the programs to Tacoma’s AMI rather than Pierce County’s.

At an update on the Action Strategy in July at a council study session, Jacques Colon, the city’s 2025 strategic manager, explained the importance of outreach.

“This is really not an effort that the city of Tacoma can make on our own,” Colon said. “Housing is not something that we have direct control over, as you all know from things such as the market to private development ...

“It’s extremely important that we’re coordinating and partnering externally to make sure that the best thought-out policies actually match the need and the real barriers that the community is facing. We have engaged developers. We have done more focused feedback sessions around actions such as tenant protections. We have reconvened a technical advisory group that has expanded significantly to include a wider diversity of stakeholders in the affordable housing world. And we plan to continue that engagement moving forward.”

At that meeting, Mayor Victoria Woodards reminded the participants of what was at stake as she ticked off Action Strategy housing numbers.

“We need to continually be reminded about how dire the situation is for our city, and how quickly we could be some other cities that we see struggling with this if we don’t take the kind of action that we’re taking now — and maybe even more action than we’re taking now,” Woodards said.

THA, for its part, has two buildings now in construction: The Rise at 19th will be a 64-unit apartment site with 14 units reserved for persons with disabilities and 14 reserved for people coming out of homelessness.

Its Arlington Drive Homeless Youth Campus for homeless youth and young adults will include a 12-bed crisis residential center for 12-17 year olds and a 58-unit apartment complex for 18-24 year olds.

There’s also its James Center North plans for 300 future units.

Thursday’s announcement of Forterra’s land purchase at the site of the former Hilltop Rite Aid also comes as welcome news for the city, possibly paving the way for affordable housing at the site.

In the end, Murillo told The News Tribune he remains optimistic about the city’s efforts.

“Throughout this, we’ve had to make sure we are realistic as to what we define as success. It wasn’t going to be 10,000 new units instantly. These processes take time,” he said.

“There are a lot of great people doing a lot of great things, and that should not be minimized.”

Affordable housing wait list

Two main kinds of housing help are offered through the Tacoma Housing Authority wait list: affordable apartments to rent or a voucher to help pay rent in Tacoma.

Households with three more more individuals can apply to enter the lottery starting at 8 a.m. Oct. 7 until 5 p.m. Oct. 18 at tacomahousing.net/waitlist.

You also can call 253-448-2738, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 7-18 or apply in person during the same time frame at 902 S. L St., Tacoma, or the Salishan office at 1724 E. 44th St., Tacoma.

What’s needed to apply:

Full name and basic information for all family members

An active email address

Your household’s yearly income

Social Security numbers for adults (18 or older) who have a number

The next round to join the waitlist is expected in 2021. If you miss this round, you can go to tacomahousing.net/notifyme to sign up for an email when the wait list reopens.

Income restrictions apply. More information: Tacomahousing.net/WaitlistFAQ.