Op-Ed: Imagination needed to fix Tacoma housing injustices beyond COVID-19 pandemic

May 24, 2020
Michael Mirra | Tacoma News Tribune

The pandemic is causing widespread hardship. In response, the nation is spending a lot of money on emergent needs, such as emergency shelter.

Doing that is essential. Yet, local and national governments also need to invest so we come out of this crisis stronger, and better, than just more shelter.

Before COVID-19, our housing markets and civic systems were weak and unjust. Nearly half of Tacoma and Pierce County’s renters could not afford their housing. Home purchases were unaffordable for many first-time home buyers. A notable number of people and families had no housing.

This failure weakened almost every other civic interest: education, child welfare, health, wage and economic development, transportation, justice and racial justice. It deepened our racial disparities. Although persons of color constitute about 25% of Pierce County’s population, they constitute 45% of persons experiencing homelessness.

The pandemic made this worse. It reminded us that housing is necessary not only for personal health, but also for public health. It created a wave of newly impoverished families that now need to find housing in a market that was not serving them before.

In our pandemic spending, we should not seek to rebound merely to the prior level of failures. We should imagine a better future, and invest in it.

There are precedents. Our nation made some of its wisest investments in its own future during crises. During the Civil War, when that conflict was not going well, Congress invented the land grant program to finance public universities.

Congress planned the transcontinental railroad. It created the homestead program for white families that settled the Midwest (all this on land taken from native people).

In the Great Depression and World War II, Congress invented Social Security, public housing, the National Labor Relations Act, Bonneville Power Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Security and Exchange Commission, G.I. Bill, and the subsidized home mortgage market, which helped create the white middle class.

This work was not necessary to survive crises. Indeed, the payoff for these investments was years ahead. Congress made these investments in a re-imagined future.

The COVID-19 pandemic should also be an occasion for a similar re-imagining, investment, and leadership.

Those past investments and the resulting generations of prosperity, however, excluded people of color. This further baked the nation’s legacy of racial oppression into these new housing markets, segregating them on purpose.

This historic exclusion helps explain why black families today on average have one-seventh the assets of average white families.

There is not only a lot of work to do. There is a lot of work to undo.

A better, more equitable, housing future is not hard to imagine. The City of Tacoma and Pierce County have both commissioned thoughtful studies recommending local strategies, of three types:

  • We need to make it easier to build housing of all sorts for all incomes. This requires more inclusive zoning that allows appropriate densities in more places. It requires easier and more predictable permitting.
  • We need to give adequate and smart incentives to developers to allow and, in some cases, require them to include affordable units in market-rate housing.
  • Tacoma and Pierce County need local housing trust funds to help finance the purchase or construction of housing that’s removed from the speculative rental market through public or nonprofit ownership.

For these same purposes on a national scale, Rep. Denny Heck is sponsoring H.R. 5599, the Fulfilling the Promise of the Housing Trust Fund Act, and Sen. Maria Cantwell is sponsoring S. 1703, the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act.

These strategies for all incomes would provide a community resilience that will serve us well, through the next crisis and beyond. It would provide a measure of racial and economic justice we would recognize.

More emergency shelter is essential. But more shelter alone is not the future we need.

View the Article at Tacoma News Tribune

32 Agencies Co-signed This Op-ed:

  • Amara
  • Asian Pacific Cultural Center
  • Asian Pacific Islander Coalition – Pierce County
  • Associated Ministries
  • Bates Technical College
  • Catholic Community Services
  • Center for Independence
  • Centro Latino
  • Forterra
  • Foundation for Tacoma Students
  • Greater Tacoma Community Foundation
  • Korean Women’s Association (KWA)
  • League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County
  • Living Access Support Alliance (LASA)
  • Metropolitan Development Council (MDC)
  • NAACP- Tacoma Branch
  • Pierce College
  • Pierce County Housing Authority
  • Pierce County Human Services Coalition Executive Committee
  • Rainbow Center
  • SafeStreets
  • Shared Housing Services
  • Tacoma Community College
  • Tacoma Housing Authority
  • Tacoma Ministerial Alliance
  • Tacoma-Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium
  • Tacoma-Pierce County Habitat for Humanity
  • Tacoma Urban League
  • United Way of Pierce County
  • University of Washington – Tacoma
  • YMCA of Pierce & Kitsap Counties
  • YWCA Pierce County