When the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee (TTOC), which includes many Tiki tenants, learned about the agreement between the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA), Tacoma Community College (TCC), and CWD Investments to house homeless TCC students, we were conflicted. We were of course pleased for TCC students who need homes, but we were also shocked and disappointed that not a single displaced Tiki tenant had been consulted during this process. One valuable tenant right to prevent displacement is “right of first return,” which allows tenants to return to a renovated property from which they were displaced. Tiki tenants had asked for this right in May, but how could Tiki tenants afford the market rate rents that would be charged once the building was renovated?
Fortunately, these renovated units will now be subsidized by the Tacoma Housing Authority. TTOC responded to this agreement by asserting that Tiki tenants have the right to move back and sharing our concerns about being excluded from the process. After seeing our response, the Housing Authority contacted us with a proposal to set aside units for Tiki tenants experiencing homelessness. After correspondence between the groups, and agreement from Tacoma Community College and CWD Investments, we are very pleased to say that seven of the initial vacancies at Highland Flats (formerly the Tiki apartments) will be set aside for previous Tiki tenants! (This number was determined based on Tiki tenants who still needed housing.)
Without the brave, committed organizing from Tiki tenants and tenants across Tacoma, we would have been left out. Now homeless Tiki tenants, who experienced the pain and trauma of being displaced, have the opportunity to move back to the apartments, which had been their homes for years. We will note that all applicants – previous Tiki residents and TCC residents – have to be eligible for THA’s rental assistance, must qualify under THA’s approved selection criteria, and must be able to pay the subsidized rent of $420 a month.
“I was so upset with how things went down when we had to leave,” said Matt Yablon, a former Tiki resident who has been homeless since July. “But the fact that the owners are responding to our request for some tenants to move back and that the Housing Authority is covering some rent, that’s just amazing. It’s helping me a lot because I haven’t been able to find a place to live. I’ve been living out of my car and in and out of the hospital.”
“We appreciate being able to move back to the renovated apartments and are very thankful for this opportunity,” says Donna Seay, former Tiki resident without housing and active member of the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee, “but we also want to turn our attention to how broken the system is, how many people still need housing they can afford in Tacoma.”
Once the seven Tiki residents set aside units and the TCC units are filled, if there are remaining vacancies, previous Tiki residents who make 30 percent of the AMI or below are able to apply for any additional spots.
While the TTOC knows that tenants should be at the center of any decision-making about our homes and communities, we are thankful that THA, TCC, and CWD have changed this agreement to meet some of the previous Tiki residents’ housing needs. We also see this new agreement as a starting point to get even better outcomes for displaced tenants in the future.
Less than five miles from the Tiki apartments, residents of the Merkle Hotel were forced out of their homes on Oct. 31. The building is slated to become market-rate housing for UWT students, but we also know up to 14 percent of UWT students are facing homelessness. There is an opportunity here for every Merkle tenant to get right of first return, and any additional units could be provided to homeless UWT students. Eli Moreno, CEO of Premier Residential the company who purchased the Merkle hotel, should respond to THA’s offer for Local Property Based Subsidies. THA is offering the subsidy they offered to CWD Investments to other owners, and THA is particularly interested in properties near public schools or colleges.
Eli Moreno claims to have “absolutely” done everything he could to “mitigate the impact of the Merkle renovation.” We are asking him to respond to THA’s offer and ensure that Merkle tenants would get the right to return to renovated apartments that are affordable to them, because a large portion of the rent would be subsidized. We hope Mr. Moreno does the right thing for tenants and the right thing for Tacoma.
Molly Nichols works on the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee. Donna Seay also works on the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee and is a former Tiki Apartments resident. Matt Yablon is a former Tiki Apartments resident.