Michael Mirra was blunt.
“Every choice is going to hurt somebody,” the Tacoma Housing Authority executive director said.
Mirra and THA project manager Aley Thompson recently broke down what they described as the challenging “puzzles” and “arithmetic” the agency is facing in trying to serve the growing number of rent-burdened Tacomans.
The picture they painted was bleak.
While the specifics can get wonky, the gist of THA’s predicament is straightforward. Operating in the same insane rental market as the rest of us, the cost to provide rental subsidies to the thousands of families who depend on housing assistance has skyrocketed.
With no slowdown in sight for the private rental market and no anticipated increase in funding anticipated, Mirra says the THA board soon will be grappling with difficult decisions on how to proceed, all while the number of families in need grows.
“This is not sustainable,” Mirra said. “That, in a nutshell, is the guts of it.”
For perspective, Tacoma and Pierce County saw some of the largest rent increases in the nation in 2017, with average rents in the area now said to be anywhere from $1,414 to $1,780 a month.
According to Mirra, that reality — the “new Tacoma reality,” as he put it — has meant the cost of doing business for THA has gone up by roughly $600,000 each of the last three years, while funding has been flat.
That’s a problem because THA is in the business of helping to keep roofs over heads.
THA currently operates two main housing assistance programs. One is the longstanding Section 8 voucher program, which provides income-based rental subsidies to families on the private housing market. The other is the newer Housing Opportunity Program, which provides fixed rental subsidies on the private market based on family size. HOP also comes with a five-year time limit.
THA also adminsiters a number of other assistance programs, including the Elementary School Housing Assistance Program, College Housing Assistance Program, Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing Program and the Family Unification Program.
All told, THA touches the lives of some 11,500 people in more than 4,000 households. That’s only a fraction of the families in Pierce County who need help, Mirra said.
“The lucky ones,” he said.
So, THA has some tough choices to make.
The agency is engaged in a widespread effort to gather community input before the board begins making the tough calls, with one of the distinct possibilities being an acknowledgment that THA no longer will be able to provide rental assistance to as many families as it once did.
The challenges facing THA are exacerbated by the fact that it gets more than 90 percent of its annual $48 million operating budget from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which expects the agency to serve a certain number of people in exchange for that money. The current baseline was established by HUD when the rental market was not as hot.
Recently, THA has been able to meet the HUD benchmark by “moving money around,” as Mirra put it. But last year, the agency dipped to serving only 95 percent of the baseline.
The THA board now faces the prospect of whether to accept the 95 percent number as the new normal. HUD officials would need to sign off if THA decides to go that way.
“We’re hopeful that HUD, even though it has this rigid baseline, will understand this arithmetic,” Mirra said.
There are a number of other changes THA is likely to consider to meet the current financial challenges, Mirra said. One might be moving more folks off Section 8 and onto the Housing Opportunity Program, with its lower subsidies and five-year time limit. That would allow THA to serve more families, but it would certainly come at a cost for those who depend on the agency’s assistance
Other possibilities include reducing the value of rental subsidies even further, redirecting vouchers to higher-earning families or cutting other important programs THA offers. These, too, would carry a cost for local families.
THA’s board will begin making decisions this month. Mirra hopes the board will provide a sustainable path forward, but he’s realistic about what all of this means for Tacoma and the growing number of families affected by the rental crunch.
“We wouldn’t do some of this … if Tacoma did not have an affordable-housing crisis, or if we had resources enough to meet it,” Mirra said. “We can feel good about some of these choices, but they are not occasions to celebrate.”
They’re certainly not.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, or, to put it another way, a sign of “the new Tacoma reality.”