Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Lives changing for the better at Mason Avenue Apartments

VIDEO: Tacoma's low-income housing alternative

The Mason Avenue Apartments is an example of a public-private partnership providing low-income housing in Tacoma. In August, residents making 30 or 50 percent of the average median income began moving in. By the end of the month, the development's
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The Mason Avenue Apartments is an example of a public-private partnership providing low-income housing in Tacoma. In August, residents making 30 or 50 percent of the average median income began moving in. By the end of the month, the development's

The Mason Avenue Apartments, just off South Tyler and 38th streets, look much like any other apartment complex in Tacoma.

On the Tuesday before Christmas – thanks to a rare appearance by the sun – it bustled with children playing outside and parents watching after them.

But this is not your typical apartment complex. Far from it.

“When they called to tell me I had the place, it broke me down. Because I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” 65-year-old Steven Crosby tells me.

A retired pastor now living off a monthly Social Security check, Crosby is one of thousands of people in Pierce County who have struggled to put a roof over their head. Earlier this year, he lived in what he describes as a “flop house,” scraping together money to rent space in a garage that smelled of cat urine. He shared a bathroom with six other people.

When they called to tell me I had the place, it broke me down. Because I really didn’t know what I was going to do.

Mason Avenue Apartments resident Steven Crosby

In September, however, Crosby found a home at the Mason Avenue Apartments, which opened in August and reached capacity this week. All told, including storage and a fee for renting a washer and dryer, Crosby now pays $459 a month.

“Which is amazing,” he says.

When you think of affordable housing in Pierce County, agencies such as the Tacoma Housing Authority come to mind first. And rightly so. THA serves some 1,500 households through public housing throughout the city. Another 3,500 low-income families, or close to 12,000 people, take advantage of its rental-assistance program.

But the Mason Avenue Apartments is a development of a rare kind: a private-public partnership that uses tax credits as an incentive for private developers to help meet the growing need for affordable housing.

From the public sector, that means tax credits administered by the Washington State Housing Finance Commission and a loan from the Tacoma Community Redevelopment Authority. From the private sector, it means equity from Boston Financial Investment Management and a mortgage from Bank of the West.

Of the 105 brand new one-, two- and three-bedroom units at Mason Avenue, half are reserved for individuals and families earning less than 30 percent of the area medium income (AMI); the other half are reserved for those earning no more than 50 percent of the AMI. Twenty-one are reserved for large families of four or more, and 21 are reserved for households with someone with a disability.

For a family of four, 30 percent of the AMI equates to a maximum income of just over $21,000 a year; 50 percent of the AMI it’s a maximum income of just over $35,000 a year.

One morning we came in and there were 17 people waiting outside the door for us to open.

Jennifer Wood of Cambridge Management Inc.

“There are a surprising number of people in our community that have less income than that,” Jennifer Wood tells me. She’s the director of property management for Cambridge Management Inc., the private company that runs the Mason Avenue Apartments along with two similar, smaller developments in town. (There are plans to break ground on a fourth such development at South 74th Street and South Verde Street next year.)

Wood is right. As I’ve noted previously, according to the Department of Commerce’s 2015 Washington Affordable Housing Assessment, Pierce County has 14,000 renter households earning 0 to 30 percent of the median income and paying more than 50 percent of their total income on housing; there are 7,000 households earning 30 to 50 percent of the median income doing the same.

The need is very real. In Pierce County there are only 10 units of affordable housing for every 100 renters earning 0 to 30 percent of the median income. In fact, our county has the largest gap in the state between the number of households classified as “very low-income” spending more than half of their income on rent, and the affordable housing units that would reduce that burden.

These grim statistics are what make the Mason Avenue Apartments so important, and the results so telling. Unlike THA, there’s no waiting list. Instead, apartments come available on a first-come, first-served basis. Referrals come from all over, including the 13 agencies in Tacoma that receive and administer rapid-rehousing funds.

“This summer we were so overwhelmed with the response that we barely did any advertising, because we couldn’t manage the people,” Wood says. “One morning we came in and there were 17 people waiting outside the door for us to open.”

One family that’s benefitting from the new living option is 21-year old Elizabeth Sierra, 18-year-old Christian Contreras and their 1-year-old daughter, Zara. Before finding their way here, the couple tells me they lived in a car in the driveway of Contreras’ sister.

“Just trying to live. Trying to survive,” Contreras says.

I feel like I can just go home and not have to worry about anything. ... It feels like we’re actually safe.

Mason Avenue Apartments resident Elizabeth Sierra

“It is a really big deal,” Sierra tells me. “When we first moved in I was so emotional. When they gave us the keys I busted into tears. I was like, ‘This is not happening right now.’ Because it was just a good feeling to have a home.”

“I feel like I can just go home and not have to worry about anything,” she continues. “And it’s our home. ... It feels like we’re actually safe.”

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