Matt Driscoll

Unique deal means redemption for vilified landlord, housing for TCC students who need help

To simply call it a happy ending wouldn’t do it justice. History, as always, is more complicated than that.

But it is a welcomed new beginning.

Six months after the mass displacement of residents of the Tiki Apartments infuriated much of Tacoma — and helped shine a white hot spotlight on the city’s growing affordable housing crisis — the apartment complex just off South 12th Street near state Route 16 is back in the news.

This time, the news is far less depressing.

By Thanksgiving, if Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra’s time line proves correct, the renovated property formerly known as the Tiki will have a new name and be filled with tenants who desperately need housing.

Under a deal recently finalized between THA, Tacoma Community College and the local developer who bought the Tiki earlier this year, Highland Flats — as it will now be known — will become part of THA and TCC’s College Housing Assistance Program.

That means the property’s 62 units will be made available to TCC students experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. Any units that aren’t filled by such TCC students would be offered to households earning 30-percent or below of area median income.

Under the terms of a 7-year contract, Mirra said, rent for tenants will be capped for all of the 62 units at $420 a month, with THA agreeing to pay Duncan’s firm, CWD Investments, an additional $765 a month per unit for rent plus utilities.

That’s a big deal, Mirra said. It effectively removes an entire apartment complex from the speculative rental market, keeping it affordable, and it substantially adds to the units THA has available to TCC students facing homelessness.

For Chad Duncan, the developer who found himself at the center of the Tiki storm, it’s also a chance to turn the page.

“Our hope is that this is a very positive new chapter for this building,” Duncan said this week when asked about the deal and the drama that preceded it.

Whether people will be quick to forgive Duncan remains another matter. The story of the Tiki Apartments and the mass displacement that happened there likely remains fresh in people’s minds.

While some former residents, like Sarah Howe and her cat Miracle, have found a new permanent place to live, others, like Matt Yablon, have not.

Again, the history at the Tiki is complicated. There’s no way around it.

Duncan was vilified for the way he initially attempted to oust a complex full of vulnerable residents, many disabled and on fixed incomes. He now says he’s done “a lot of listening” in the months since.

“We purchased a building in need of very serious renovation. But, I also know that the people who lived there called it home. And I was the guy who had to ask them to move so we could make it better. I wrestled with that for a long time, and, in part, that reflection is what led me to this partnership with THA and TCC,” Duncan said.

“We can all participate in the solution — and that’s what I hope this partnership represents,” Duncan added. “When the idea surfaced with THA and TCC to use this property as a means to house low-income TCC students, we knew it was a solution we wanted to be part of.”

Back in April, when the Tiki was purchased and its residents were thrust into stressful housing uncertainty, this was an outcome few would have envisioned.

“What I was expecting before I got into these discussions with Chad (Duncan) was that the Tiki was going to go market rate, the rents will be really high, and it would be inaccessible,” Mirra said. “So we avoided that. Actually, we did better. We added a fixed-up new apartment to this portfolio that makes the THA College Housing Assistance Program a lot stronger.

“I give the new owner … a lot of credit for that.”

For TCC students like Erica Anthony, a 35-year-old single mother now enrolled in her second year of study, THA and TCC’s College Housing Assistance Program has made a world of difference.

Recently named one of the nation’s 25 most innovated governmental initiatives for 2018 by the Harvard Kennedy School, the program began by providing rental subsidies for students to use on the open rental market.

As Tacoma’s rental market has heated up and the fixed vouchers became harder and harder to use, the program grew to include an increasing stock of what Mirra refers to has “hard units” in close proximity to the school.

That portfolio includes two properties near TCC, the James Center North development that’s currently in the works, and now the former Tiki apartments.

Without the program, Anthony said, college — and achieving her goal of working in information technology — would be nearly impossible.

Previously, Anthony and her daughters were forced to live in a home with eight family members — and three generations — all under one roof.

“I was really struggling. In my first quarter, I couldn’t focus on school because I was just so focused on surviving and finding a place to live,” Anthony said. “It’s made a significant difference in my ability to participate in my program.

“I’m so thankful … because it really kind of changed everything for us.”

Anthony is not alone. According to Mary Chikwinya, TCC’s vice president for student affairs, the 4-year-old program currently has 46 students utilizing THA rental vouchers.

For Anthony and her two daughters, it means the $1,300 a month the family now pays for a two-bedroom apartment in Tacoma’s West End is manageable, because it’s subsidized by a $570 check every month from THA.

The College Housing Assistance Program has shown so much promise, Mirra said, that THA decided to expand it earlier this year. An open enrollment period next week will begin the process of increasing the number of rental vouchers available to students at risk of homelessness to 150.

Chikwinya said data from two years shows the program greatly improves the percentage of students at risk of homelessness graduating or staying enrolled. Grade point averages also increase for those enrolled in the program, she said.

The need is real, Chikwinya added. A 2016 report from the University of Wisconsin Hope Lab found that 69 percent of TCC students who responded had faced housing insecurity in the previous 12 months, while 27 percent had experienced homelessness.

THA’s new deal with Duncan will only help.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has spent months listening to the concerns and cries for help from former Tiki residents. It’s one of the reasons the Tacoma City Council is expected to enact a slew of permanent tenant protections by the end of the year, she said.

Woodards added that while the displacement at the Tiki was unusually large, similar displacements happen “every day” in Tacoma.

Still, this week Woodards said she wants to express her “gratitude” to Duncan for making this new opportunity possible.

“(Duncan) would have had that apartment building full in no time, but the fact that he did a good thing for this community, we will benefit from this,” Woodards said. “It wasn’t the perfect situation, but it speaks to the fact that I think people want to do the right thing.

“Sometimes it just takes them longer to get to what the right thing is.”