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Tacoma activists urge swifter city action on housing problems

They briefly occupied an abandoned middle school, hoping to make it into housing. They dumped trash on the steps of Tacoma’s city hall, urging trash collection at encampments. And now a group pushing for better housing in the city says it plans something on Christmas Day, too.

Tacoma Housing Now wouldn’t offer specifics for their next protest action, but spokesperson Rebecca Parson said it would be something “all members of the community” would be able to participate in. Parson says the group has tried the traditional means of addressing their issues and making their demands. That includes meeting with the mayor and some city council members, to urge swifter action for unhoused people.

“It’s just not working,” Parson said. “The reason this stuff doesn’t get solved is because people just go about like normal. The machine just keeps on going. We need to throw something into the gears of the machine and stop it, and say, ‘Look, people are living out in the cold.’ ”

She says city leaders spend too much time talking about problems, and that the solutions offered so far have only been temporary Band-Aids. They want more long-lasting fixes, including a community land trust, which would be owned by a community board and create space for housing people can afford.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards tells KNKX the recent demonstrations have spurred more urgency on the city’s part.

“This is what I love about my city. I appreciate the compassion and the passion of those who want to work to find solutions,” Woodards said. “We just have to work together to find solutions that are feasible.”

Woodards says city leaders have been meeting with Tacoma Housing Now and are working to address their demands. She points to an expected increase in shelter beds, with about 80 more opening up in the next few weeks. The city also now has shower trailers and has extended its contract to operate a warming center out of the Eastside Community Center. It will now remain open through February. 

But Woodards, like Parson, acknowledges that shelters are a temporary fix.

“Housing is the problem,” Woodards said.

KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick talks with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards about the city's efforts to provide more services to people living out side and to build more affordable housing.

Establishing a community land trust was identified as a policy goal in the city’s 2018 Affordable Housing Action Strategy. At the time, it was considered a “short-term” goal that would take 3-4 years to facilitate. 

“Having a community land trust in Tacoma would stabilize existing homeowners who opt-in to the land trust and preserve future homeownership opportunities in areas where housing costs are escalating,” the document reads.

Tacoma Housing Now has put renewed attention on the concept, though Woodards says it will still be a long process. She says the goal is to create a committee early next year to study the prospect of a community land trust in Tacoma more deeply. The committee will look at a variety of questions like, “who’s part of the community land trust, how people donate the land, who the land is for.”

“There’s a lot that has to be determined before we just start building,” Woodards said. 

It could still take a couple of years to create the trust after the committee has finished its study.

Tacoma leaders have shared a list of vacant city-owned properties that could be used for the trust. But the land could also come from other public entities or from private donors.

Parson says there have been years of organizing and advocating for better housing, that people continue to die because they can’t find housing, and that now could be the time for things to change.

“We believe not one more death is acceptable,” she said. “If the city could come to us with a compromise and say ‘OK, we have a solution where no more people are going to die on the street,’ then yeah, we’d take that seriously. But they have failed to come up with that.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.
A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.