Was it too little too late for most who live in the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma?
It remains to be seen.
The City Council did the right thing Tuesday night when it directed City Manager Elizabeth Pauli to quickly assess the city’s options for better protecting renters. In calling an emergency meeting and asking Pauli to also look into allegations of violations of tenants’ rights, it’s clear the council felt compelled to do everything in its power to help those being coldly displaced by a profit-minded developer.
Faced with a packed council chambers and a growing crescendo of outrage from citizens throughout the city, it’s really the least council members could do given the circumstances.
While future Tacoma renters might be better off because of the cruel fate of Tiki residents, changing the law now won’t help folks like Sarah Howe, even before the end of the month comes and her time at the apartment complex is up.
“I’ve got six days to find a place, and I’ve got no idea where in the hell I’m going,” Howe said.
That means emergency assistance for folks like her will need to take a different form.
Howe, blind and wheelchair dependent, is one of the many residents of the Tiki Apartments facing eviction. I first talked to her last week, not long after she received a notice to vacate the apartment she’s called home for the last three years — just like the people living in all of the other 57 units at the property.
Howe lives off of $790 a month in supplemental support income and was given until the end of the month to find a new place to live. So far, she isn’t having any luck.
“I’m to the point where I get scared,” Howe said. “I’m trying to have a sense of humor … but I feel like coming apart at the seams.”
It’s understandable. With her life suddenly upended by a calculating businessman — a man who claims not to be heartless, but whose dealings provide little evidence to the contrary — it’s amazing Howe is holding up as well as she is.
Monica Klavano, 46, is in a similar boat. She’s also in a wheelchair and, along with her husband, has lived at the Tiki Apartments for the past 12 years. She said her optimism has all but disappeared.
Klavano wants answers, and she wants the property’s new owner held accountable.
“You can’t do this to people … just because you feel that you want to make some money,” Klavano said of Chad Duncan, the registered member of CWD Investments LLC, which bought the property.
“There are real people here,” Klavano said. “There is a real community here. There are survivors.”
It’s no surprise that the situation at the Tiki Apartments has generated the instant and resolute community reaction it has. The stories of those on the cusp of sudden homelessness are gut-wrenching, while the cold-hearted greed at the root of it all feels unfathomable.
So far, a GoFundMe created by a concerned citizen has generated more than $11,000 to help Tiki Apartment residents in need of assistance. The goal is to raise $20,000, and hopefully it’s reached.
Meanwhile, Associated Ministries and the United Way of Pierce County have both stepped up to help residents connect with what little assistance is available.
From a local government perspective, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards acknowledged Tuesday that the situation "broke my heart," and that was before she listened to the more than 30 people who addressed the council on the subject of the Tiki.
The question now is what comes next?
Woodards said that when it comes to jumping in and immediately saving the day, options are limited.
“I haven’t spoken to a council member who doesn’t want to do something. We just don’t know what that solution is yet,” Woodards said. “It’s not about whether we should or should not. We have to do something.”
The mayor is right. The good news, I suppose, is that it shouldn’t be difficult for the city to identify laws that would help. In fact, the Tenants Union of Washington has been in contact with every member of the council and has forwarded several worthwhile ideas.
Amy Tower works with the Tenants Union. On Tuesday, she identified the “two biggest things” Tacoma could do right now to better protect tenants.
The first would be to pass “just cause protections,” limiting a landlord’s ability to put someone out on the street without an adequate reason. At the same time, such a law could extend the amount of time a landlord is required to give a tenant when asking them to vacate for something like a remodel or rehabilitation.
Just think of how much that would help if it was currently on the books.
The second protection is a system for providing low-income, displaced renters with relocation assistance, Tower said. Once enacted, it would help ensure that tenants like those living at the Tiki Apartments wouldn’t be pushed into homelessness by the burden of the cost of moving.
Again, if such a law already existed, the outlook for those at the Tiki Apartments would be decidedly different. They’d still be looking for a new place to live, but they'd have ample time to do it and the money to make it happen.
Unfortunately, without these laws — which could have been passed a long time ago — folks like Howe have been left to fend for themselves.
“God’s not going to see us get stranded,” Howe insisted. “I just wish I knew what his plan was.”
For her sake, and the sake of every other resident at the Tiki Apartments, I hope a miracle is right around the corner — even if it requires divine intervention.
For the Tacoma City Council, however, the directive is more straightforward: Do something to truly protect renters in Tacoma, so situations like these — large and small — stop happening.
And do it soon. Because what the situation at the Tiki Apartments makes painfully apparent is there’s absolutely no time to waste.