Matt Driscoll

They blew it 8 years ago. Tacoma leaders shouldn’t ignore affordable housing crisis this time

Affordable housing crisis in Tacoma

Tacoma City Council has received an affordable housing action strategy. The $70 million plan would create, preserve more than 8,000 units and offer supporting services to 2,200 households over 10 years.
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Tacoma City Council has received an affordable housing action strategy. The $70 million plan would create, preserve more than 8,000 units and offer supporting services to 2,200 households over 10 years.

If it felt like you were watching a rerun, that’s because you were.

On Tuesday, with great excitement and plenty of superlatives, the Tacoma City Council unanimously voted to accept what’s officially being called the City of Tacoma Affordable Housing Action Strategy.

Compiled by city staff with input from a diverse group of technical advisers, it’s the blueprint city leaders likely will use as they attempt to alleviate Tacoma’s affordable housing crisis in the coming years.

That’s good and critically timely. We’re in the midst of an affordable housing shortage, and it’s only getting worse.

Amidst the hoopla, let me insert a caution: We’ve been here before.

Eight years ago, to be precise, so any excitement Tacoma residents feel should be tempered with at least a hint of skepticism and a healthy dose of remorse about what might have been.

Put bluntly, if the city’s leaders had acted with deliberate urgency the first time they received a report like this, Tacoma wouldn’t find itself in the dire housing affordability crunch it’s stuck in today.

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20 ... but still.

It stings.

Back in 2010, the Affordable Housing Policy Advisory Group delivered a startling similar set of policy recommendations to the one the council received on Tuesday. A copy of that report happened to be collecting dust in one of my desk drawers.

It estimated that by 2030 Tacoma would need an additional 8,174 affordable units for cost-burdened residents.

Today, that problem hasn’t gotten any better.

Among other things, the 2010 effort advised that achieving that housing goal likely would require a combination of nonprofit and for-profit development, incentives for developers, inclusionary requirements and the creation of a sustainable local funding source.

The Affordable Housing Action Strategy presented to the council on Tuesday, meanwhile — while packed with a lot more data and implementation advice — essentially concluded the same thing.

It recommended, among other things, a combination of nonprofit and for-profit development, incentives for developers, inclusionary requirements and the creation of a sustainable local funding source.

While some recommendations in the 2010 report have come to pass — like the implementation of certain affordable housing incentives and less-restrictive regulations for infill development — most, if not all, of the big stuff has not.

Michael Mirra is executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority. Mirra was a key member of the technical advisory group that helped inform the new action plan. He also helped craft the 2010 plan.

“The basic strategies have not changed too much from the 2010 report that we gave the council,” Mirra said Tuesday before the council took possession of the new plan. “The main parts of both sets of recommendations are the same, and the city really hasn’t advanced those notably.”

This brings to mind a (slightly altered) well-known saying:

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

(And, oh by the way, we told you to plant that tree back in 2010.)

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that while we can’t press rewind, we can hit fast forward and start enacting the new (or old) affordable housing recommendations as fast as possible.

Which is precisely what the city should do before the housing crisis of today becomes the housing catastrophe of tomorrow.

How important is it to act now? Currently there are only 23 affordable units available for every 100 extremely cost-burdened Tacoma household that needs one.

Further, the report found that there are nearly 33,000 households currently paying at least 30 percent of their income on housing.

That’s a recipe for disaster. Addressing it will require bold action, which is exactly what the new plan prescribes.

Over the next 10 years, it calls for the creation of 6,000 new affordable units and the preservation of 2,300 units, while also providing direct assistance to 2,200 households to help them stay housed or gain access to housing.

All of it, the report acknowledges, comes with a “significant” price tag — as much as $70 million over the next 10 years. That money would come through a mix of local and federal sources.

So will it happen this time?

We can only hope.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Mayor Victoria Woodards called affordable housing the council’s highest priority, while specifically zeroing in on the word “action” in the plan’s title.

“It’s not something to sit on a shelf,” Woodards said of the blueprint. “It’s something to actually do.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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