Tacoma’s affordable-housing challenges were largely created by the city during the last 50 years through the adoption of multiple levels of restrictive, byzantine land-use policies that have thwarted housing development.
Coupled with more people willing to move here, it was entirely predictable that housing prices would rise sharply.
Thus, it’s encouraging to see the Tacoma City Council now prioritizing affordable housing.
New policies should be built on the truism that every new unit constructed in the city, regardless of price level, helps mitigate costs and reduces the number of displaced residents, like the people recently forced to move from the Tiki Apartments.
All the city’s affordable-housing proposals were no doubt based on good intentions. The beneficial policies should be quickly adopted, while the ones that would exacerbate Tacoma’s shortage by raising new costs and barriers to housing creation should be quickly scuttled.
Narrowly tailored tenant-protection policies, such as extending the 20-day eviction notice requirement in certain situations, should be adopted.
But additional regulations should be examined cautiously, as every new one increases the cost of housing. Because they do not add new units to Tacoma’s residential stock, they won’t make it more affordable.
Allowing Tacomans to build attached dwelling units is a long overdue method to add affordable housing here without requiring any new land or tax to do so.
The city should also add construction incentives and refrain from burdening or impairing the modest incentives already in place.
The city should first focus on removing outdated barriers, such as 1950-era suburban parking requirements, yard mandates, density rules and height limits in mixed-use centers. These have restricted housing development in the last half century and made it unnecessarily expensive to live here.
To make matters worse, the city is considering yet another layer of red tape in what’s known as “design review.”
As enticing as it might appear, the city should reject heaping the cost of subsidized housing entirely on new dwellings through the collection of impact fees or through the practice of inclusionary zoning, also known as IZ. (Under IZ policies, a government dictates that a predetermined share of new residential construction must be affordable to people with low to moderate incomes.)
These policies would increase housing prices in Tacoma and displace more residents.
It’s little wonder that in urban planning circles, IZ policies are among the most criticized. They raise housing prices and create the opposite of the benefit they’re purported to solve.
It would be nonsensical and unjust if the government attempted to fund food stamps solely through a tax on groceries. Yet that’s the equivalent of the policy being considered in Tacoma with regard to housing.
The Portland Mercury recently reported on that city’s draconian IZ system, and concluded that “a year into the policy, the detractors seem to be winning. Apartment construction in Portland has fallen off a cliff …”
Yet, even if Tacoma officials removed the multitude of barriers that hobble development, many Tacomans still wouldn’t be able to afford a house due to the high cost of land, labor and building materials.
The reality is that below-market housing units do not pay for themselves and will require a public subsidy. The city could subsidize new affordable housing by donating it from its vast land portfolio or by paying for construction directly.
Just as there is no free pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there is no free repository of affordable housing that can be created by imposing an additional cost to new development.
Erik Bjornson is a downtown Tacoma attorney who occasionally writes for the Tacoma Weekly on urban design issues.