Hilltop needs higher wages and local hires

Jeff Klein of Tacoma is executive director of Sound Outreach and former development director at Emergency Food Network.
Jeff Klein of Tacoma is executive director of Sound Outreach and former development director at Emergency Food Network. Courtesy photo

A recent article in The News Tribune highlighted the fact that people are being priced out of living on Tacoma’s Hilltop.

As executive director of a financial opportunity center located in the center of the business district, I can attest that our neighbors are being displaced at a rapid clip as rents and home values rise, but wages stagnate.

Some landlords are doubling their rents. Homes that sold for $80,000 in 2011 go for $250,000 or more today.

The article noted that the neighborhood is 40 percent minority, 25 percent low-income and 30 percent of households have no vehicle. University of Washington Tacoma lecturer William Towey also pointed out that 35 percent of African American households moved away between 2010 and 2015.

Many people in local government and nonprofits are concerned about what this displacement means for Hilltop, whether it’s too late to stop it and whether the East Side is next.

Most conversations about solutions focus on affordable housing, density and increasing the housing stock. The TNT article highlighted great approaches Tacoma Housing Authority and the city are taking to ensure that future development incorporates affordable housing options.

Those solutions are appropriate. But to have an immediate impact, our community also must dedicate itself to addressing stagnant wages, and not through increasing the minimum wage.

The median household wage on Hilltop right now is about $40,000, while the median wage for the rest of Pierce County is $60,000. Hilltop’s median wage will certainly increase, but we believe current residents should be the beneficiaries of that increase through access to better-paying jobs.

Of the 12,000 individuals living on Hilltop, fewer than 300 work downtown. Most people with higher wages either commute from Pierce to King, or they come from elsewhere to take jobs downtown.

We are not advocating for pure “localism,” but there must be some emphasis on local hires in high-wage career pathways.

Sound Outreach provides financial counseling and employment coaching to economically vulnerable Pierce County households. With support from United Way and through partnerships with the City of Tacoma and Bates Technical College, we help people develop skills for local employment opportunities that have high wages and less restrictive minimum qualifications.

We leverage our networks for enrollees in our program the same way that people with more social capital might ask someone for a recommendation or a reference.

Recently, we worked with a person who had been through an apprenticeship program in the skilled trades. Through our relationship with a local utility company, we recommended him for an interview and he was offered a job starting at $32 an hour. (A family with two kids needs a full-time job at $26 an hour to get by in Pierce County.)

We’re on the lookout for employers willing to look at people who may not have the qualifications on paper, but who are learning hard and soft skills necessary to succeed on the job through coaching. Often these people are working with a financial counselor to manage their money well and avoid decisions that might lead to job loss.

With light rail, more restaurants, bars and retail coming to Tacoma, property values won’t go down anytime soon.

With King County’s housing affordability in worse shape than ours, people there see Hilltop and surrounding areas as appealing options. Our county is expected to grow 25 percent by 2030, so don’t expect an improvement in housing availability or affordability.

The character of a neighborhood changes when long-time residents move out, as does the feel. We welcome employers willing to take a chance on hiring people from our local neighborhoods coming out of training programs at Sound Outreach, Goodwill, Tacoma Community College, Bates and Clover Park technical colleges, and WorkSource programs.

I encourage any Pierce County employer with starting hourly wages above $15 and with opportunities for wage progression to fill out this survey so we can include you in our network.