Matt Driscoll

Tacoma’s affordability crisis plays out in results of sad lottery at Housing Authority

It took less than five minutes.

With a push of a few computer buttons, the process of choosing which families will have a shot of receiving assistance from Tacoma Housing Authority in the coming years and which families will not was complete.

From nearly 5,000 households to 1,200 lucky ones, randomly selected, in a blink of an arbitrary eye.

It was, in the words of Tacoma Housing Authority project manager Aley Thompson, a “hard” and “emotional” day.

Why wasn’t it a joyous one?

For some, it was — or at least it will be, once THA starts notifying people next week.

Getting onto THA’s waitlist potentially represents a make-or-break moment for these families, setting them up for a spot in one of the 1,300 units the agency owns or one of the 2,500 rental subsidy vouchers it distributes for use on the open rental market. Given the soaring cost of housing, it’s an opportunity — hopefully arriving in the next two years or so — that could make all the difference.

This fact isn’t lost on Thompson.

For the many others, however — or the vast majority of families in need who were turned away — it essentially represented yet another door-slam in the face.

That isn’t lost on Thompson, either.

They came to THA for help, and — in the end — there was no help to be offered.

Tacoma’s affordable housing crisis, in a nutshell, boiled down to one telling moment.

Better luck next time.

Thanks for trying.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Thompson says simply.

At its root, this is a story about households and families.

The 4,883 applications for housing help THA received represent roughly 19,000 people, Thompson says. The 1,200 applications that made the cut, meanwhile, represent 5,403 of them. That means nearly 14,000 people who asked for help get nothing.

So in the realest possible sense, the instant electronic selection process can be seen as brothers and sisters who won’t get a bedroom, and mothers and fathers who will struggle even more mightily to house their families.

In a broader policy and political sense, the situation exemplifies the crisis-level affordable housing crunch facing Tacoma and its leaders.

For the families in need of help — and there are clearly many — too few resources exist, in part because of inaction and a lack of political will in the past.

Because of that, when it comes to accessing those limited resources, the difference between getting lucky and getting nothing is often just that — pure luck.

It’s a sobering reality that THA is left to grapple with.

The last time the housing authority opened its wait list — in 2015 — nearly twice as many applications were received.

According to Thompson, this year the agency limited applications to only households with three or more people because there are still so many smaller families toiling on the list. Again, evidence of the acute housing shortage.

The details included in the applications THA received also help to illuminate the complexity of the crisis, and the families it’s hitting hardest.

According to THA, some 43 percent of applicants self-reported experiencing homelessness.

Just over 61 percent reported an annual income of $25,750 or less — far below what it takes for a household of three or more to reasonably afford housing in Tacoma.

The overwhelming majority of households — just over 93 percent — included children.

Eighty-five percent reported a female head of household.

Meanwhile, 85 percent reported having a disabled head of household.

Of the applicants, nearly 60 percent of heads of households had a high school diploma or GED. Nearly 18 percent had some college or vocational school education, including nearly 900 associate’s, bachelor’s or vocational degrees among them.

Most applying households — just over 46 percent — are from Tacoma, with another 11 percent from Pierce County.

Nearly 35 percent of applications came from households somewhere else in the state, demonstrating that the affordable housing shortage doesn’t end at Tacoma city limits.

All told, Thomspon acknowledges, it’s a lot to deal with. That’s why she says there were were no smiles on Monday morning at THA’s main office.

Instead, for an agency located next to People’s Park on Hilltop, it was another reminder of the weight of its work, delivered in a conference room not far from the collection of makeshift tents and shelters that’s just across the street.

“Personally, it’s been a really rough week for me,” Thompson says. “I was super excited to be able to open up the wait list, but it was really devastating at the same time. … It really cements how great the need is in our community.”

“Not only did you drive in today and pass a homeless encampment that’s getting bigger by the day, but you had to say, ‘I can’t help you,’ to a single mom with a kid that’s fleeing domestic violence,” Thompson says.

“We pressed a couple buttons, and that was it, unfortunately,” she says.

That was it.

Unfortunately.

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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