Matt Driscoll: Cantwell’s case for affordable housing an easy one to make in Pierce County

By:  Matt Driscoll
Source: Tacoma News Tribune

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell took what she’s referring to as a “national campaign” to increase the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to Tacoma and Pierce County.

Unfortunately, it was an appropriate stop.

In a room at Tacoma Housing Authority’s Bay Terrace development filled with a who’s who in the world of Pierce County affordable housing, the Democratic senator — flanked by Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and THA Director Michael Mirra — held court.

Cantwell let others do most of the talking.

Experts such as Connie Brown from the Tacoma-Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium spoke of the plethora of challenges local developers face when trying to build affordable units, including, in particular, the lack of a local affordable housing trust fund.

Educators such as McCarver Elementary School Principal Wayne Greer spoke of the importance of affordable housing in education, and how student achievement in many parts of Tacoma — including the neighborhood where we were all gathered — is tied to the need for stability at home.

Advocates such as Tess Colby of Pierce County Connections spoke of the established link between the availability of affordable housing and the reduction of homelessness on our streets.

Everyone in attendance shook their head knowingly, yet Pierce County’s stock of affordable housing continues to lag and the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to rise.

And Ernerdette Robinson, a Bay Terrace resident, spoke of the way affordable housing programs have helped better her life. After arriving in Tacoma, Robinson described how Bay Terrace gave her somewhere to live, and its Head Start program gave her grandson a leg up.

Robinson told Cantwell and the other leaders in attendance, “I love it here.”

The senator’s goal is to increase the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit — and the annual amount of credits available to states — by 50 percent.

Cantwell’s numbers suggest that such an increase — an essential tool for developers looking to make affordable housing projects pencil out — would help build 400,000 affordable housing units across the nation over the next decade, including 4,000 in Washington.

In Pierce County, Cantwell says the change —which she’ll be championing through legislation back in D.C. — would result in nearly 400 new units of affordable housing over the same period.

The senator and the bipartisan coalition she’s gathered for the fight also point to the 70,000 jobs the tax credit helps support each year, arguing that the proposed hike will inspire private investment and act as an economic “stimulus.”

In a room full of people who know the value of the tax credit better than most, none of it was a tough sell. Cantwell preached to the choir.

But while she kicked off her tour with stops in Seattle and Spokane, and has plans to visit major cities across the country, there might not be a more appropriate place for her to make the case than here.

As I’ve written before, Pierce County suffers from what Mirra has described as an “unmet, brutal need” for affordable housing. During Cantwell’s visit Tuesday, Strickland said local developers “can’t afford to build (enough) affordable housing. Not because they’re morally bankrupt, but because the math doesn’t work.”

That bad math creates plenty of problematic equations in Pierce County.

Here, there are only 10 available units of affordable housing for every 100 households living at zero to 30 percent of the median family income, and 29 available units for households living at zero to 50 percent. It’s a sad state of affairs — one of the worst in Washington, in fact. And according to the state Department of Commerce’s 2015 Housing Needs Assessment, it isn’t expected to improve soon.

Here, 21,000 low-income families pay more than half of their monthly income in rent.

Here, according to a 2015 assessment commissioned by the state Affordable Housing Board, there’s 7.6 percent of the statewide inventory of subsidized housing, but an 11.1 percent share of the state’s low-income renters.

Here, some 16,589 renters are considered “extremely low-income” who simply do not have access to affordable housing.

And in Tacoma, Mirra has told me, THA houses or helps to house one out of seven Tacoma Public Schools students, and one out of 4.5 low-income students.

After touring THA’s Bay Terrace development, Cantwell was off, eventually back to Washington, D.C., where the real battle to increase the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit will be waged.

Meanwhile, here in Pierce County, we wait for results with bated breath.