Biggest affordable housing problem is lack of it

Tacoma Housing Authority properties include the Salishan neighborhood on the East Side.
Tacoma Housing Authority properties include the Salishan neighborhood on the East Side. Staff file, 2006

The talking heads of television had a field day last week with a story about a perceived abuse of subsidized public housing.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general had found many cases of families continuing to live in public housing even after their income had risen substantially. The most egregious case was of a New York family earning $497,911 a year paying only $1,574 a month.

Yes, that’s over the top, and that family should have to make way for one that is truly in need of help. But many of the approximately 25,000 “over-income” families were just barely over. Most were within $10,000 of the level that makes them eligible for HUD’s housing assistance.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to kick families out of public housing just as they’re starting to make inroads on success. But it does make sense to raise their rent as their income rises, to the point that the rent approaches market rate. That provides an incentive to leave public housing and make that scarce resource available to those who need it more.

That’s the case here in Tacoma. Households are eligible for public housing up to an income of 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), according to Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra — about $45,440 for a two-person household.

But the actual income of households served by THA is much lower, an average of about 24 percent of AMI, or about $13,440. The highest-earning household THA rents to is a large family earning $63,896 — about 83 percent of AMI due to the household’s size.

Households that improve their income to above 80 percent of AMI aren’t evicted. Instead, they’re charged higher rents. THA sees value in allowing families to stay in place as their fortunes improve. Mirra says, “A mix and a range of incomes make for a healthier community.”

For THA, and most communities, the biggest problem isn’t families who make too much. It’s not having enough housing to help everyone who so badly needs it.

Mirra told News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll that there’s an “unmet, brutal need” for more affordable housing in Tacoma. Although THA serves 1,500 households by renting out properties it owns throughout the city, and provides rental assistance to another 3,500, many more could be served if the resources were there.

To illustrate the need, earlier this month nearly 10,000 people submitted applications in hopes of winning a “lottery” of sorts that would enable 1,200 of them to get on a waiting list for rental assistance. Then it could take 18 to 24 months to get the call from THA.

Five years ago, a city advisory group determined that Tacoma needed 14,096 more affordable housing unit just to serve its existing low-income households and another 8,174 by 2030.

It’s a need that keeps growing — and that’s a much bigger problem than a few isolated cases of “overearners.”