More affordable housing near TCC is a smart investment

From the Editorial Board

Tacoma Housing Authority expands innovative partnership with Tacoma Community College.
Tacoma Housing Authority expands innovative partnership with Tacoma Community College. phaley@thenewstribune.com

How’s this for a bold move: Tacoma Housing Authority is spending $6 million for seven acres of property. If it doesn’t make you a little uneasy that publicly accountable officials are making million dollar real estate deals on a dream and a prayer, it should.

But wait. Even without a crystal ball, (ours is in the shop), we can see that acquiring this prime piece of real estate on South Mildred Street is a smart investment.

THA purchased the cluster of underused buildings in the James Center North plaza with the vision that one day they will be replaced with 300 to 500 mixed-income housing units. Pierce County could use more of those.

This purchase was a leap of faith to be sure, but it adds to mounting evidence that THA’s mission goes beyond providing housing for low-income residents and has moved toward building bridges for them to reach middle class status.

Consider the strategic location: The property sits across the street from Tacoma Community College, a major transit hub and eventual terminus for a light rail line. It demonstrates the agency’s willingness to address root causes of poverty: not just unaffordable shelter, but lack of access to transportation and education opportunities.

Witness the innovative partnership THA has had with TCC since 2014. The program provides rental assistance to homeless students enrolled full time as long as they make adequate academic progress. Nearly 200 students applied for vouchers that first year; 47 received assistance in the early going. Of those, 60 percent graduated with a degree or are still in school. Of the applicants who didn’t get aid, the success rate was only 16 percent.

The partnership received national attention. More important, it’s growing, with 150 vouchers soon available.

But what about Tacoma’s youngest students, the ones years from earning a college degree? Another THA initiative, the McCarver Housing Assistance Program, offers proof that giving a child stable housing improves his or her quality of education, and quality of life.

Since 2011, THA has teamed with McCarver Elementary in the Hilltop neighborhood to provide rental assistance to 50 families with children enrolled in kindergarten, first or second grades.

In six years, more McCarver families are staying put, reading scores climbed 33 percent and students perform at levels comparable to their peers across the district. Next year the nationally renowned program will expand to other Tacoma grade schools.

The efforts at McCarver and TCC, as excellent as they are, don’t come close to addressing the housing affordability crisis in Pierce County. According to Zillow, rents for homes, apartments and condos here have increased 5.1 percent in the past year.

You wouldn’t know we had a problem by looking at the current surge of apartment construction. But the big question is: Are these units affordable? For those whose earnings hover around Pierce County’s median annual income of $44,650, the answer depends on how much one likes to eat.

The good news for our region of boom is that a growing housing base leads to a growing tax base, which means improved services and better schools. But without affordable and mixed-income housing, like what THA plans for James Center North, families are relegated to high-poverty neighborhoods, where proximity to jobs and opportunities is limited.

Executive Director Michael Mirra told the TNT his agency made the $6 million purchase because it may be the only opportunity for affordable housing in the West End neighborhood. Paying almost $1 million per acre might seem extravagant on the surface, but the track record of THA and Mirra prove their minds are set on improving communities through economic independence. And who can’t get behind that?