Inside The 'Nightmare' Of Finding Housing When You're Disabled
Residents of the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma say they know their complex is run down.
But they say it's served as a refuge for renters who struggle to find apartments elsewhere, including people with disabilities, fixed incomes, or criminal records.
Now that a new landlord is displacing them, they're thrust into a much more intense housing market. A new owner from Seattle is renovating the complex and notified tenants last month that they would have to leave.
The episode highlights the extent to which the Puget Sound region's housing affordability problems have taken root in Tacoma, once considered a bargain for housing within reach of people with disabilities.
Tacoma's average rent swelled by 8 percent to $1,218 over the past year, according to the apartment search company RENTCafé.
"It's like living in Hell," said Sarah Howe, who is blind and uses a wheelchair due to a rare genetic disorder called Norrie disease.
Howe, 42, has lived in the complex three years and has until the end of June to move out. Initially, she had less than a month, but a public outcry led by tenants like Howe, and a last-minute deal engineered by Tacoma City Council members, extended the landlord's deadline.
Howe estimates she's made 40 to 50 phone calls to inquire about apartments, none of which have panned out.
"It's been a nightmare," she said. "I go to sleep and hope that I wake up and I get to start all over. But I wake up and it's the same thing: still looking for a place to live."
Her disabilities limit her choices. She needs an apartment that's wheelchair accessible and close to transit lines.
But a major obstacle is her income. Howe gets $790 a month total in federal and state assistance. Her rent at the Tiki Apartments currently takes up most of that, leaving her with $220 a month for bills and other expenses.
Again and again, she's been told nothing is available within that kind of budget.
"I want to cry, but I just hang up and then I cry a little bit," she said. "And then I get over it and make another phone call."
Tacoma City Council members allocated $10,000 earlier this month to pay for caseworkers to help relocate the tenants. So far, about half have found new homes.
All around Howe's unit, workers have already begun renovating apartments for new tenants.
"My biggest fear is being the last one here," she said. "But then even if I'm the last one here, it's a statement that there's just not that much accessibility out there."
When she went outside to pull a prank on one of her neighbors last weekend — she planned to put a sleep shade over her eyes and say, "I can't see, I'm blind!" — she couldn't find anyone.
"There was nobody here to pull a prank on, nobody here to mess with," she said. "These are my friends, these are my community, these are the family that I chose. These are the people that looked out for me."