Opinion

Affordable housing near Tacoma Mall needs wise city action

More affordable housing is needed in the Tacoma Mall area. A few years ago, some of the newest multifamily housing, The Pacifica and Pine Crest Town Homes, were visible over Ronald McDonald on the commercial strip along South 38th Street.
More affordable housing is needed in the Tacoma Mall area. A few years ago, some of the newest multifamily housing, The Pacifica and Pine Crest Town Homes, were visible over Ronald McDonald on the commercial strip along South 38th Street. News Tribune file photo, 2015

As more people move to Tacoma with scant housing being constructed in the city, Tacomans are predictably seeing housing price increases.

Costs will continue to rise rapidly unless the city removes outdated barriers allowing more affordable housing to be built.

On Tuesday, the public has a chance to sound off on this issue when the Tacoma City Council holds a public hearing on the Tacoma Mall Neighborhood Subarea Plan.

Real estate prices are increasing in Tacoma quite simply because more people with higher financial means are bidding against each other and renters are competing over a very limited supply in order to be “first in line” or “most qualified.”

A recent article from the well respected Sightline Institute succinctly described the solution to creating affordable housing: “Building plenty of housing is not just one way to affordability, it is the only way — the foundation on which other affordability solutions, measures against displacement, and programs for inclusion rest.”

Affordable housing, defined as a dwelling that costs no more than 30-35 percent of a household’s gross income, can be created in a number of ways.

First, market-rate housing is often affordable for people in Tacoma in older buildings or in areas where land costs are inexpensive.

Second, affordable housing can be created when public funds subsidize construction and maintenance. This occurs in numerous ways. However, available funding to create subsidized housing will always be limited and can never replace the general real estate market.

Third, affordable housing in Tacoma is created by utilizing the city’s 12-year tax incentive, which is increasingly being used by developers.

Tacoma should look to make housing affordable on both the macro and micro level. Everyone wants an affordable residence for themselves. However, Tacomans also have an interest in reasonable market prices in order to reduce displacement of current residents.

Consider the Tacoma Mall Mixed Use Center. Given the breadth of this area, it provides a great opportunity for Tacoma to create a great deal of affordable housing by finally allowing smart “infill” of vast swaths of parking lots.

Establishing zoning policies that allow reasonable market rates is also important for non-profit entities that want to build more affordable housing.

A cautionary example is the San Francisco area, where creating a single affordable housing unit can cost more than $700,000 due to high land and regulatory costs.

Tacoma should decline to respond to increased housing prices by adding regulatory costs such as rent control, design review or inclusionary zoning, as cities such as San Francisco have done.

These well-intentioned regulatory schemes have been shown to drive housing prices even higher and reduce the number of units produced.

Acquiring funds for additional subsidized housing units should be distributed as evenly and equitably throughout the city as possible, rather than heaping it all on new housing units.

The Tacoma Mall Mixed Use Center’s current regulations pose a huge barrier to the creation of housing, increasing both the market rate and the cost for non-profits to construct subsidized affordable units.

Lagging other cities, Tacoma has failed to reform its 1950s-era suburban parking requirement, which adds $25,000 to $50,000 to a residential unit, unless a narrow exception is granted.

So long as Tacoma continues to force developers to build multi-story underground parking garages with each development, little if any affordable housing will be built.

More housing must be built in Tacoma in a way that balances social sustainability with good urban form.

The time has come for the city to implement a holistic approach to housing, remove unnecessary barriers for development and create mechanisms to fund new housing options that allow Tacoma to become a more inclusive and economically vibrant city.

Erik Bjornson is a downtown attorney. Joshua Jorgensen is a project manager at Tacoma Housing Authority.

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