Tacoma Mall area provides chance to create affordable housing


As more people move to Tacoma with scant housing being constructed in the city, Tacomans are predictably seeing housing prices increases. Housing costs will continue to increase rapidly unless the City removes outdated barriers that will allow affordable more housing to be built in Tacoma. Quite simply, housing prices are increasing in Tacoma 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 “the most qualified.”

A recent article from the well respected Sightline Institute described the solution to creating affordable housing succinctly: “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.”

A residential dwelling is considered affordable for a household if the housing cost is less than 30-35 percent of the total gross household income. Affordable housing can be created in a number of ways.

First, market rate housing is often affordable for many people in Tacoma in older buildings or in an area where the cost of land is inexpensive.

Second, affordable housing can be created when public funds are used to subsidize the construction and maintenance of housing. This occurs in numerous ways. However, 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 12-year tax incentive in Tacoma, which is increasingly being used by developers.

Tacoma should look to make housing affordable on the macro and micro level. Everyone wants an affordable housing unit for themselves. However, residents throughout Tacoma have an interest in having the market price of housing remain reasonable in order to reduce the displacement of current residents.

Given the breadth of the Tacoma Mall Mixed Use Center, this area provides a great opportunity for Tacoma to finally allow smart infilling of vast swaths of parking lots and create a great deal of affordable housing.

Establishing zoning policies that allow the market rate of housing to remain reasonable is also important for non-profit entities to build more affordable housing. As an example, a single affordable housing unit in the high priced San Francisco area can cost over $700,000 to create due to high land and regulatory costs.

However, Tacoma should decline to respond to increased housing prices by adding additional regulatory costs for housing such as rent control, design review or inclusionary zoning as cities like San Francisco has done, which have help create astronomical housing costs. These well-intentioned regulatory schemes have been shown to drive housing prices even higher and reduce the number of housing units produced. Acquiring funding for additional subsidized housing should be gathered 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 and increase both the market rate of housing as well as the cost for non-profits to construct subsidized affordable housing. Lagging other cities, Tacoma has still failed to reform its 1950 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 is going to be built.

More housing needs to be built in Tacoma in a way that balances social sustainability with good urban form. The time has come for Tacoma implement a holistic approach to removing unnecessary barriers for housing development as well as creating mechanisms to fund new housing options that will 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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  1. Thank you for a well-researched, thoughtful and well-considered approach to the multi-faceted problems of housing in Tacoma. Your expertise on the subject should be welcomed by politicians claiming to be interested in best practices regarding affordable housing.

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