Housing crisis strains resources to keep up with rising rents

Rising rents are forcing people into homelessness faster than Tacoma Housing Authority can keep up with its construction of affordable housing units and voucher programs. Photos by Steve Dunkelberger.

The fact that local rental rates and home prices are dramatically on the rise isn’t news to anyone, but the level of struggles for low-income families and the agencies that house them is sobering to many people.

Three new homes are added to the regional housing stock, according to a report by the Puget Sound Regional Council, which also notes that seven jobs are also being added to the economy during that same hour, increasing demand faster than the housing supply. The median home price for the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area has almost doubled since 2012 to $492,000, with most of those increases hitting the greater Seattle market that then forces those families to seek more affordable housing options in Tacoma.

The Puget Sound region experienced the third fastest increase in home prices and the sixth fastest increase in rents around the nation last year with few signs of relief, according to the report. That growth translates into one in five renters paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing, while that rate climbs to three out of five for low-income households. A household needs to earn $150,000 a year to afford that median-price, $492,000 home, or the equivalent of six full-time jobs at minimum wage, according to the report. The median rent for a two-bedroom house in Puget Sound is $1,900, up from $1,320 in 2011.

Those rates are a little better in Tacoma, but not by much.

The city is short some 18,000 affordable housing units, according to federal statistics, which show that a family would have to make $31,000 a year to afford just a studio apartment, or $40,000 for a two-bedroom house. Adding those units to lower the housing gap means higher density just to keep up with the volume of apartments that are raising rates faster than local wages can absorb.

“If it were food, we would recognize it as wide spread malnutrition with pockets of starvation,” said Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra.

THA is an independent municipal corporation formed under state law and governed by a five-member board of commissioners that manages a dozen housing communities around the county. THA has no taxing authority and receives no regular operating funds from the City of Tacoma or the State of Washington, however. Most of its funding for programs and projects comes from rents that it charges to its tenants, fees that it earns in administering its various programs, subsidies from the federal government, developer fees that it earns when it builds or rebuilds and grants from public and private sources. It is the largest landlord in the county, providing 1,500 units around Pierce, with much of it centered in Tacoma’s Eastside Salishan neighborhood and the agency’s new Bay Terrace development on the Hilltop that strive to serve as “communities” rather than “housing” through landscaping, attractive design and services.

“We tell people that both ugly and beauty are contagious,” Mirra said.

THA is also buying up and renovating properties to retain the area’s affordable housing stock rather than see those apartment complexes sold to private developers that would renovate them only to hike rents that would be unaffordable to low-income families.

The agency is finalizing plans for a $25 million project for homeless youth and young families, known as Arlington Drive Campus and located at 3.5 acres the agency owns at East 38th Street and Portland Avenue. The first phase will be a 12-bed crisis residential center from homeless teens that will be followed by 40 apartments for young adults with children that will have support services and worker training programs and will come through a partnership that includes funding from Tacoma and Pierce County.

Alongside those projects, THA either buys or builds affordable housing options or partners with other agencies to develop projects on their own through loans and revenue guarantees such as long-term rental agreements as well as provides $30 million in rental vouchers for tenants on the private housing market. One trouble is that the demand for those voucher dollars has drastically outpaced the funding to support them for years now.

“We were on this trajectory that what not sustainable,” Mirra said.

That fact prompted THA to face a difficult decision of either “watering the soup” by lowering the amount of money each family receives in rental assistance so that more families can be helped, or lowering the number of families the agency could help. Since THA had already lowered the amount each family received on rental vouchers years ago, it opted to lower the number of families it could help. The brutal reality of math means 170 fewer families won’t receive vouchers. Families won’t be dropped from the program; new ones simply won’t be added when those families receiving housing assistance “graduate” into sustainable living of their own. There is already a two-year waiting list for THA housing assistance. It even talks a winning ticket in the agency’s lottery to land a spot on the 1,500-family waiting list, which is open only every two years and receives up to 15,000 applicants just during the one-week enrollment period.

That growing demand has THA also focusing on stemming the need by promoting childhood education within its properties by offering free books in all of its facilities as well as prompting each new family to fill out College Bound paperwork that offers scholarships to low-income students once they graduate high school only if they had registered for the program by eighth grade.

“This is a life-transforming prospect,” Mirra said that is available with just a few signatures that are added to the stack of paperwork incoming families fill out when they receive THA housing assistance.

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