Matt Driscoll

'Almost like 'Escape from L.A.'' An eyesore property, and Tacoma's plan to prevent blight

Tacoma targets derelict homes for cleanup with pilot program

Tacoma City Council Members, Chris Beale, Lillian Hunter and Catherine Ushka, have pushed for a pilot code enforcement program that. they hope will generate data to help the city improve service and response times to code enforcement issues.
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Tacoma City Council Members, Chris Beale, Lillian Hunter and Catherine Ushka, have pushed for a pilot code enforcement program that. they hope will generate data to help the city improve service and response times to code enforcement issues.

To call it an eyesore would be an understatement.

The vacant, yellow house on East 72nd Street — which now has a chain-link fence around it to keep out unwanted visitors — is well known in the neighborhood.

Not long ago, before the fence, a “mountain of trash” stood out back, and hypodermic needles were strewn all over the driveway, according to Tacoma City Councilman Chris Beale.

“I don’t exaggerate,” Beale promises. “This thing was almost like ‘Escape from L.A.’”

The abandoned home, which is scheduled to be demolished soon, is “emblematic,” he says, of the type of quality-of-life issues the city is hoping to address with its new code enforcement pilot project. The effort will focus on council Districts 4 and 5.

Beale and City Councilwoman Lilian Hunter say the idea is to identify and address long-neglected homes and then connect property owners with resources and assistance to prevent future homes from spiraling out of control.

At the same time, the city hopes to demonstrate to residents of District 4 and 5 that when they report issues like the ones that have long festered at the yellow house on East 72nd, someone really will respond.

Clearly, that didn’t happen here until it was too late.

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An abandoned home on East 72nd Street in Tacoma is an example of the type of issues the City Council is trying to address with its new code enforcement pilot project, according to City Councilman Chris Beale. Courtesy Chris Beale

“What I heard a lot while door knocking is … people in the South End feel beat down,” Beale says. “People feel like the city doesn’t care about them, that the elected leaders in their community don’t care about them and that they don’t respond.”

It’s an understandable sentiment, Beale says, because “in the past it just hasn’t been something that has happened very reliably.”

Together, District 4 and 5 encompass much of South Tacoma as well as the city’s South End and East Side.

There’s a reason why the city targeted this area with its new code enforcement. Compared to the rest of the city, the two districts have long had more than their fair share of abandoned and derelict homes.

That’s been the case for some time. Despite a passing acknowledgment of the disparity, the problem simply hasn’t gotten much better, Beale and Hunter say.

I first wrote about the issue in May 2015. At the time, there were 308 abandoned and derelict homes in Tacoma, according to the city’s code enforcement division. Of those, 224 were in South Tacoma, the South End or the East Side.

In September 2016, I wrote a follow-up. With the housing market heating up, I wondered if things had improved.

Unfortunately, things hadn’t. In fact, by then the city’s count was up to 390 unoccupied derelict homes, with a total of 264 of them in Districts 4 and 5.

Today, according to the most recent numbers available, there are a total of 259 derelict properties citywide, with 156 of them in Districts 4 and 5.

According to Hunter, who holds an at-large seat, this historic over-representation — and the impact it has on quality of life — is at the root of the city’s new code enforcement pilot project.

Meanwhile, Beale says he’d like to see the city’s code enforcement division create a position, or a point person, specifically tasked with dealing with the problem.

“These are minor things that when you start adding them up … and you get enough of those, now it becomes very major for this end of town,” Hunter says. “That’s what we’re trying to address.”

It’s a worthy goal but also one that requires a delicate mix of empathy and enforcement. After all, there are plenty of extenuating circumstances and economic reasons that can contribute to a home slipping into blight and disrepair. Maybe someone lost a job. Perhaps an elderly resident suddenly finds it difficult to keep up.

It’s a balancing act that Beale and Hunter both say they’re keenly aware of, though it also bears watching as the pilot program proceeds. Clearly, to have a lasting impact, it will take more than a crackdown.

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An abandoned home on East 72nd Street in Tacoma is an example of the type of issues the City Council is trying to address with its new code enforcement pilot project, according to City Councilman Chris Beale. Courtesy Chris Beale

“Our goal with the pilot program isn’t to suggest, ‘Hey, it’s hammer time.’ It’s more of how do we help you get this house under control?” Hunter says. “We want this to be welcomed by the neighborhood. With our code enforcement, we’ve got a realistic but also a compassionate edge to that. We will hold people to a standard and we will help people get there.”

Before leaving, Hunter, Beale and I take one more look at the yellow house with the chain-link fence around it.

How does something like this happen, I ask, and how can the city prevent it?

“That’s what drives the pilot,” Hunter says. “This didn’t happen overnight.”

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