Matt Driscoll

Tacoma is finally poised to pass meaningful tenant protections. Activists deserve the credit.

Former Tiki Apartments to house TCC students

Michael Mirra, executive director of Tacoma Housing Authority, is pleased to have a partnership with the owners of Highland Flats, the former Tiki Apartments, which will be used to house low income students from the nearby Tacoma Community College.
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Michael Mirra, executive director of Tacoma Housing Authority, is pleased to have a partnership with the owners of Highland Flats, the former Tiki Apartments, which will be used to house low income students from the nearby Tacoma Community College.

In a moment that’s been a long time coming, Tacoma is poised this week to begin enacting meaningful tenant protections.

The accomplishments — assuming they become official — surely will be touted by the elected officials who cast the votes to make them happen.

Deservedly so.

Here’s what’s crystal clear, however: Renters-turned-activists like Donna Seay are the reason Tacoma is ready to pass a host of new rules and regulations that will make life more certain for renters navigating the city’s volatile housing landscape.

Seay, 46, was one of the folks displaced from the Tiki Apartments.

Disabled and living on Social Security, the Tiki saga and Seay’s role in it helped galvanize a community response to Tacoma’s inadequate tenant protections.

More recently, the mass displacement at the Hotel Merkle added to the urgency.

Seay never expected to become one of the faces of a growing movement, but that’s precisely what happened.

“We’re winning because we’re being very boisterous and standing up for what we believe in,” Seay, a member of the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee, said this week. “We’ve worked really hard from the very beginning.”

Together, the protections included in the proposed ordinance, while likely to be tweaked and massaged over the coming weeks, will help renters like her “be able to breathe” and “not live in fear,” she said.

Most notably, the ordinance — which will receive its first reading by the Tacoma City Council on Tuesday — includes a substantial increase in the amount of time landlords must provide renters before terminating tenancy, important notifications of coming rent increases and protections against retaliation.

It also stands to establish tenant relocation assistance for low-income renters, an accomplishment that Seay described as “huge.”

“I do believe that it’s resonating with people,” Seay said of the calls for tenant protections the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee has championed over the last six months. “I didn’t realize that (the movement) would become as big as it has become.”

In the beginning, no one did.

That’s why the progress and the community level activism that made it happen have been so inspiring to watch.

“I would say that without the leadership and commitment and struggle of the Tiki tenants … we would definitely not be in this place,” said Molly Nichols, a member of the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee and a spokeswoman for the organization.

“It’s been amazing to see how many tenants across the city have come out in support, not just renters, but homeowners and allies that believe that this is something important to push for.”

That’s not to say everyone is happy with the proposed ordinance.

For instance, Heather Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, says there aren’t enough carve-outs and protections for small “mom and pop” landlords — which she describes as those renting four or fewer units. Pierce describes some of the penalties that might be levied on these small landlords as “excessively punitive.”

Further, Pierce says that adding a host of strict regulations and enforcement mechanisms is likely to persuade small landlords to get out of the business entirely. Ultimately, Pierce believes this will leave “the middle-income residents with fewer and fewer options.”

“Unfortunately,” Pierce told The News Tribune, “tenant advocates and city staff were unwilling to protect small-business operations from costly regulations designed to address large conglomerate and redevelopment investments.”

Nichols, on the other hand, pointed to one area where the proposed ordinance falls short from the perspective of the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee.

It doesn’t include “just cause protection” — or regulations that would require landlords to “demonstrate the reason” a tenant is being displaced — which is something tenant activists have been fighting for since the beginning.

With this in mind, Nichols describes the proposed ordinance as “a great step and not enough.”

“We’re excited to continue to push,” she says.

Still, even if we acknowledge there’s work yet to be done — a contention both sides seem to agree on — it’s still worth taking a step back and recognizing just how far the city has come in a matter of months.

“I think we’ve really moved the needle a lot, in terms of tenant protections,” said City Councilman Chris Beale. “I think a lot of what we’ve done here is a big step forward.”

From a policy standpoint, he’s right.

Noting that Tacoma is “almost 50-percent renter occupied,” Mark Morzol, managing attorney at the Tacoma-Pierce County Housing Justice Project, described the proposed ordinance as “a huge step forward for tenants — particularly, low-income tenants — while allowing landlords to maintain control of their rental properties.”

For Seay, the validation likely comes from the real-life results — for her and others in her situation.

Thanks in large part to the pressure and the collective voices the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee has harnessed, Seay will be one of seven former TIki Apartment residents that get to move back into the property as soon as it’s finished being remodeled.

As part of a deal between the Tacoma Housing Authority and the building’s new owner, Seay’s rent will be subsidized, and she’ll even be able to reclaim the exact same unit she was forced to abandon.

It’s a victory, and one that Tacoma’s tenant protection ordinance will add to.

“It was a very traumatic experience,” Seay said of the ordeal that started Tacoma down this path.

“Saying I’m grateful doesn’t even do it justice.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.

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