Matt Driscoll

Last week’s affordable housing drama between Tacoma and Pierce County was embarrassing

This is not how government is supposed to work.

I’ve had a few days to digest the dense and wonkish report offered up by my News Tribune colleagues Josephine Peterson and Allison Needles over the weekend, and the above — sadly — is all that seems certain.

Tacoma has an affordable housing crisis on its hands.

Pierce County has an affordable housing crisis on its hands.

The Puget Sound region has an affordable housing crisis on its hands.

Responding will require action from governments big and small. It also will require teamwork, partnerships and — most of all — elected leaders who are up to the challenge.

In Tacoma and Pierce County?

Well, last week we got a clown-car effort instead.

That simply won’t do.

In a normal column, this is where I’d probably try to explain the situation succinctly.

Turns out, that’s a big part of the problem here.

At every turn — city, county and state — no one seems to know for certain what the deal is.

So here’s what we do know ...

As with many local conundrums, the origin story of this one takes us to the state capitol in Olympia, home to a never-ending reserve of good intentions and unforeseen consequences.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed an effort intended to allow cities and counties to access sales-and-use tax dollars for affordable housing programs. That’s a good thing. It’s also complicated, because of course it is, relying on varying decimal-point calculations and a whole host of other confusing variables.

At the same time, the law also was passed many months ago, which should have given the Tacoma City Council and the Pierce County Council — and especially their respective smart and well-paid staff — ample time to get their acts together.

That, you’ll be surprised to learn, did not happen.

What happened, instead, was a bizarre and perhaps completely unnecessary race to the dais last week, with the county and city both rushing to pass ordinances while jockeying for access to the funds.

Tacoma unanimously approved its version of the ordinance, authorizing the city to take up to $900,000 per year for the next 20 years from state taxes to spend on affordable housing.

The county, meanwhile, did not. Passing the county’s version of the legislation required a supermajority, and the vote stalled at 4 - 2 in favor, with Pam Roach absent.

The problem? Some county officials believe it needed to act before the city to ensure the largest possible payout. Without Tacoma included in Pierce County’s calculation, Pierce’s cut will be smaller, they worry.

At the 11th hour, frantic county officials reached out to the city, asking Tacoma to delay its vote so the county could get its ducks in a row. The city declined, in part because the two jurisdictions interpret the confusing new law differently (in case that wasn’t clear already).

Some, like Pierce County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, called the situation frustrating.

Others, like Pierce County Councilman Dave Morell, likened the rushed (and ultimately failed) vote to having a gun to his head.

I’ll be even more direct.

The whole thing was plain stupid. There’s no other way to say it.

It’s painfully clear that almost no one knows what’s really going on here, despite the fact they’ve all had months to prepare and this is the job taxpayers pay them to do.

The good news? All is not lost. Starting in September, Tacoma will start reaping the benefits of the new state law, while the county can move forward and pass its own ordinance, setting the county up for millions of dollars over the next 20 years for affordable housing.

Whether it’s more or less than the county would have received if Tacoma had waited remains to be seen. Even the state Department of Revenue isn’t sure.

For what it’s worth, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards pledged to The News Tribune to “remain in conversation with our partners at Pierce County to see if there are more creative solutions we can pursue together to create a ‘win-win’ outcome for all Tacoma and Pierce County residents.”

Good. Because a collaborative effort, moving forward, should really be viewed as a bare minimum.

Why? Your average resident struggling to keep up with the price of housing doesn’t care about inside political baseball. They don’t care about procedural drama. They don’t care about egos or hurt feelings or county-city dynamics or internal communication breakdowns.

They care about making sure there’s a roof over their head, and the heads of their loved ones.

In short, they care about results.

And what we saw last week was the result of two jurisdictions failing to work together, making them ill-prepared to address the crisis at hand.

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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