The Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) is a creation of state law, which allows cities and counties to form a public housing authority. The City Council of Tacoma did just that by resolution on August 16, 1940, forming the Housing Authority of the City of Tacoma (THA). The resolution states that the City formed the Housing Authority to address a shortage of safe and sanitary dwellings accommodation in the City of Tacoma, Wash., available to persons of low-income at rentals they can afford. By this action, the City of Tacoma sought to participate in the recently created federal housing programs. Within two years, however, the City’s housing needs sharpened further for a very different reason.
World War II created an overwhelming demand for rental housing in the Northwest. With America’s entry into that war, large numbers of people, with their families, migrated to Seattle, Bremerton, Tacoma, Portland and other Northwest cities to be stationed in military bases or to work in the factories and shipyards that built the planes and ships that won that war. Like the other communities, Tacoma faced an immediate and serious shortage of housing for these newcomers. In response, the federal government commissioned the design and speedy construction of large-scale housing developments in these communities. Salishan, with 2,000 units, was one of the largest.
The history of THA, from its beginning to the present, is very much the history of Salishan.
THA managed Salishan, and other developments in Tacoma, for the federal government during the war. THA, in coordinated efforts with the City of Tacoma and the military, provided 3,723 dwelling units for individuals and families until the war ended in 1945, and for a brief period afterward. Many of the units were built as temporary structures to last the war.
After the war, the need and role for this housing changed. It first served to house returning war veterans and their families. In the years following, the federal government transferred much of the housing at its various developments to private interests or to other public agencies for other uses. For example, it cleared and conveyed about 50 acres of Salishan to the Metropolitan Parks District, which owns it to this day. It gave THA the balance of the original Salishan community, with nearly 900 units on 188 acres, for use as a public housing community to fulfill THA’s original mission of serving the housing needs of low-income households in the City of Tacoma.
Over the years, Salishan has been an important source of affordable housing in the City. From its opening, it was one of the city’s first racially integrated neighborhoods. Since the end of the Vietnam War, Salishan has also been an important gateway community offering the first American home for generations of new Americans arriving from other nations. Salishan has long been distinguished by a resident population that is wonderfully diverse by race, ethnicity, language, national origin, age and abilities.
Yet, by the 1990s, Salishan was worn out. The dwelling units, built in haste to address a war-time emergency, had probably outlived the useful lifespan their builders had anticipated. In addition, during the intervening years, federal housing programs had never provided enough money for adequate maintenance. Salishan’s sewer system, electrical distribution system, and water delivery systems were also failing.
In response, THA sought and received a $35 million HOPE VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the demolition and rebuilding of the entire Salishan community. THA broke ground on this effort in 2003. It will finish in stages, with completion to occur sometime in 2011 or so, depending on how long it takes to assemble the financing. The first families began returning in late 2004. When completed, new Salishan will have about 1,270 to 1,300 dwelling units, including about 350 single-family homes for sale. It will also have new infrastructure, including an innovative system of bioinfiltration swales, a new medical-dental clinic and a new education, training and retail center. The entire effort will cost about $ 225 million. It will be the largest residential development in the history of the City, except perhaps for Salishan’s initial construction.
Until the mid-1960s, Salishan comprised the only dwelling units in THA’s portfolio. THA has grown since then. Today, it owns approximately 800 other units throughout the City. These include seven high-rise apartment buildings for seniors and disabled persons, and five family communities. THA continues its efforts to increase and diversify its portfolio of properties.
In addition to providing its own housing for rent, THA has managed programs that help families rent housing on the private rental market. It has done this in partnership with thousands of private landlords. The HUD Section 23 Leased Housing Program was the first of these programs. This program authorized THA to lease houses and apartments in Tacoma from private owners. THA then sub-leased those dwelling units to eligible applicants. HUD began phasing out Section 23 in the mid 1970’s and converted it to a program that is today called the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8). This program pays a portion of the rent directly to landlords on behalf of participating households. Today, the Housing Choice Voucher Program is the national government’s primary housing assistance program for very low-income families. In Tacoma, it serves over 3,500 households by helping them afford their rent in the private rental market and brings about $25 million per year into the City in the form of rent payments to private landlords.
THA also has programs that help people purchase their first home.
Altogether, THA provides housing or housing assistance to over 12,000 individuals, which represents 6 percent of the population of the City of Tacoma. The great majority of these persons are minor children, seniors or persons with disabilities.
THA also provides or arranges for supportive services to households participating in its housing programs. These services help seniors, disabled persons and others succeed as tenants who live independently. They also help families succeed as parents, students and wage earners in the hope, and expectation, that they will become less dependent on subsidized housing.
THA is also changing.
THA has no taxing authority. It is not part of the city or state government and receives no regular budgetary allocation from them. It has relied traditionally on program income, mostly from the federal government. This money, however, has been diminishing. THA now uses an array of funding sources, public and private. Salishan is an example. Of its $225 million cost, private sources will provide most of it. THA is also seeking to diversify the type of property it builds and manages to include more mixed-income and mixed-use developments. It also understands its mission is not only to develop and manage property but also to build and strengthen communities. To further these efforts, the City of Tacoma in 2008 designated THA as a public development authority.
THA’s challenge is to find ways amid these changes to remain focused on its social justice mission of serving its communities’ neediest persons and families, and to do so in ways that make those communities, in the words of one of THA’s strategic objectives safe, vibrant, prosperous, attractive and just.