Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A look at Tacoma’s ‘unmet, brutal need’ for affordable housing

Using a spreadsheet and a projector, technical analyst Jennifer Watts conducts the lottery for Tacoma Housing Authority in front of a small audience at the THA headquarters Wednesday.
Using a spreadsheet and a projector, technical analyst Jennifer Watts conducts the lottery for Tacoma Housing Authority in front of a small audience at the THA headquarters Wednesday. Staff photographer

It happened fast. Jarringly fast.

In maybe a minute, the Tacoma Housing Authority’s list of nearly 10,000 people hoping to receive rental assistance through the agency’s Housing Opportunity Program was trimmed to 1,200 lucky names.

It was billed as a lottery, but there was no fancy lotto-style ball machine Wednesday at THA headquarters. A spreadsheet did the work, shuffling the names and info of the hopeful applicants and then randomly settling on the chosen ones.

Those fortunate 1,200 now move onto the HOP rental assistance waiting list. If things go as planned, they’ll receive a call from THA in the next 18 to 24 months.

Fingers crossed.

“This is a reflective moment,” THA Executive Director Michael Mirra explained to the dozen or so people gathered inside THA’s IT training room to bear witness to the lottery.

I was there as an independent observer, invited to ensure there was no funny business. Jennifer Bell, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, was there in the same capacity.

Mirra’s words marked a somber moment, underscoring what the THA executive director would later describe to me as an “unmet, brutal need” for affordable housing in Tacoma.

The thousands of applications for THA rental assistance came in over the span of just 10 days in July. If the window had been longer, there would have been many more.

This is Mirra’s reality. From his corner office inside the THA building, where a worn baseball sits on his desk amidst the stacks of paperwork, he sees it first hand.

“We serve a relatively small number of lucky families who (receive) this very valuable housing subsidy, and then tens of thousands look in from the outside, with their noses pressed against the glass, getting nothing,” Mirra tells me, rubbing his baseball pensively as he speaks.

“They can’t even get on our waiting list, because they did not apply or applied and lost the lottery. There is no factor to adequately explain who’s in and who’s out in any way that should matter.”

The THA serves some 1,500 households through public housing throughout the city that it owns and rents out. Another 3,500 low-income families, or close to 12,000 people, benefit from its rental assistance program.

Most of them are elderly, disabled or minor children. Mirra tells me THA “houses or helps to house” one out of seven Tacoma Public Schools students, and one out of 4.5 low-income students.

That’s not a typo.

THA’s rental assistance comes in two forms: There’s Section 8, the standard voucher program that the majority of THA’s clients still receive, and the newer HOP program, or what Mirra calls “THA’s version of Section 8.”

Funding for both comes almost exclusively from federal HUD money.

Since 2011, THA has been slowly moving away from Section 8 and toward HOP. The new program, created in response to anticipated federal funding cuts, has somewhat smaller subsidies and, for those who can work, a five-year time limit that Section 8 doesn’t have.

The benefit: It allows THA to serve more people.

“Thinning the soup,” Mirra calls it.

It’s a necessary concession, according to the executive director.

Compared to other urban cities on the West Coast, rent in Tacoma is fairly cheap. But “cheap” is a relative term. Wages in Tacoma also lag behind, and scores of people in Tacoma and Pierce County struggle to put a roof over their heads.

A 2015 assessment commissioned by the state Affordable Housing Board found that Pierce County has 7.6 percent of the statewide inventory of subsidized housing, but an 11.1 percent share of low income renters.

It’s hardly a new development. Back in 2010, the Tacoma City Council created an Affordable Housing Advisory Group to study the issue and make policy recommendations.

One of the group’s conclusions: “The city of Tacoma currently has a very serious shortage of affordable housing for its residents. This shortage will likely worsen over the next 20 years.”

The analysis, while nearly five years old, also found that Tacoma needed “approximately an additional 14,096 affordable housing units for its present population of low-income households,” and an additional 8,174 by 2030 based on growth estimates.

Toward the end of our conversation, Mirra slides a packet of paper my way.

More telling than any bar graph or bleak policy report, it’s a collection of emails THA has received from people looking for help.

“My family and I are in need of a home. We are currently living in my mom’s house. I am a single mom with three kids,” begins one of the many. “My eldest son is disabled and in a wheelchair.

“We live in a three bedroom house with three other adults. My boys share a room and my daughter and I sleep in the garage. Can you please lead me to the correct department if there is help available?”

Mirra provides a personal response to every such inquiry.

However, the executive director’s reply always includes the same lines:

“I am sorry THA cannot be more helpful more quickly. The need is so great and our resources are so thin.

“I wish you and your family well.”