Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Making the case for an affordable housing trust fund in Pierce County

Staff photographer

“I’m disappointed, but …”

Tacoma Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium Executive Director Connie Brown trails off when discussing a recent vote of the nonprofit’s board of directors.

She understands the decision they reached. She even sees the rationale behind it. But as the director of an organization dedicated to addressing the critical shortage of affordable housing in Pierce County, it’s still a difficult one to see.

The issue at hand is a local housing trust fund — or, more specifically, whether now is the right time to launch an effort to make one in Pierce County a reality. On Oct. 8, the Affordable Housing Consortium’s board voted not to pursue a campaign to put a countywide property tax levy on next August’s ballot.

The idea behind local housing trust funds is straightforward: They allow local municipalities, generally through the collection of taxes or fees, to create a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing. The availability of this pool of money, in turn, helps make local developers more competitive for state, federal and private affordable housing grants.

Seattle has a housing trust fund. Bellingham has one, too.

Tacoma and Pierce County do not, which puts us at an extreme disadvantage that shows up in our stock of affordable units.

It’s not a new issue for Brown or her board, which is chaired by Metropolitan Development Council Executive Director Mark Pereboom and includes Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra and Pierce County Housing Authority Executive Director Charlie Gray.

Affordable housing advocates like them have long argued that creating a trust fund would help ease the affordable housing crisis in Pierce County – where, according to the Department of Commerce’s 2015 Washington Affordable Housing Assessment, there are only 10 units of affordable housing for every 100 renters earning 0 to 30 percent of the median income.

The report also indicates there are 14,000 renter households earning 0 to 30 percent of the median income that pay more than 50 percent of their total income on housing, and 7,000 households earning 30 to 50 percent of the median income doing the same.

All of this helps Pierce County to earn the dubious distinction of having the largest gap in the state between the number of “very low-income” households that spend more than half of their income on rent and the affordable housing units that would reduce that burden.

That’s the big reason why the consortium had been exploring the possibility of pursuing a countywide tax measure for months. They went as far as developing an 18-month timeline of what the effort would look like and even asked a local political consulting firm to crunch the numbers.

They estimate a tax of 6 cents per $1,000 of property value, costing the owner of a $200,000 home $12 a year, would generate roughly $4.8 million and could help build about 130 units of affordable housing in Pierce County a year.

It would certainly be an improvement.

According to Mirra, Pereboom and Gray, the consortium board voted to not pursue a 2016 ballot measure at this time because of the significant resources and effort mounting such a campaign would require from the consortium.

Individually, they also point to a handful of unanswered questions, including whether the Pierce County Council might prefer to ask voters to enact a 0.1 percent sales tax to fund affordable housing, a power the Legislature granted the council this year.

The call to not pursue a 2016 ballot measure at this time, they made clear, did not change in any way the board’s view that Pierce County and Tacoma need an affordable housing trust fund.

On that point, they stand committed. Brown tells me the consortium will keep working on it.

“The decision was to go or not go in that moment (of the vote),” Gray told me. “Nobody in that room would say not ever. It’s not as though an affordable housing trust fund and levy was abandoned.”

Or, as Mirra put it: “The decision was about whether or not the consortium will fund an effort to elicit interest in the trust fund campaign, which is completely unrelated to the need for a housing trust fund.”

There’s no doubt getting voters in Pierce County to sign off on a new property tax would be a tall task, requiring a robust and well-run campaign. Tacoma-only measures have failed twice since 2001. The most recent attempt, in 2005, flopped — getting only 35 percent of the vote.

Local political consultant and data journalist Ben Anderstone of Progressive Strategies NW helped run the numbers, looking at similar trust fund votes across the region — most notably Bellingham’s successful effort in 2012 — and adjusting the results to Pierce County’s demographics.

His firm found that with a campaign identical to Bellingham’s, a housing trust fund ballot measure would likely earn 42 percent support across the county. To achieve success, supporters would have to win over the outlying areas of Pierce County.

“You would have to be a really strong campaign that really had a good sense of how to talk to areas outside of Tacoma,” Anderstone says.

The key, he tells me, would be explaining affordable housing as an “emergency need” in Pierce County.

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to see it as anything but.

Which is why we should all hope that, one way or another, someday a countywide affordable housing trust fund becomes more than a pipe dream.