Friday, July 28, 2006

Two Perspectives on Downtown Housing (I)

After decades in the doldrums, downtown housing has returned in a big way. The 2000 Census confirmed that downtown population in major U.S. cities reversed a long-term trend, increasing by about 10 percent during the 1990s. While reliable data for the past five years is hard to come by, the numbers that do exist point to even more rapid growth.

We could do well to catch the vision of Vancouver, one of our urban neighbors to the north. Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor for Governing magazine, recently observed that Vancouver's housing boom has created "a vibrant, safe, glamorous downtown, full of residents who have money to spend and who enjoy themselves spending it at all hours of the day, every day of the week". Nearly twenty percent of Vancouver's total population resides downtown, and that number continues to grow.

Tacoma lacks the comprehensive vision that Ehrenhalt found in Vancouver, but our downtown has nevertheless benefited from the growth trend in urban living. Since the mid-1990s, when Tacoma's downtown population hovered right around 1000 (almost entirely low income), the past few years have seen investments that will eventually result in several thousand new housing units (almost entirely market rate--middle to upper income). A decade of low interest rates, relatively inexpensive property, and generous tax abatements have "primed the pump" for housing; another influence may have been adoption in the mid-1990s of a moratorium on low-income housing downtown through what is today known as the Miller Amendment.

When the Tacoma City Council adopted this legislation in 1995, downtown was open for development of low-income housing and had no market-rate projects on the horizon. The proposal of two significant new low-income projects--a multi-story project proposed by a non-profit housing provider in the block of Pacific just south of 9th, and the Olympus Hotel--set downtown interests to the ramparts. The BIA and other advocates for the measure argued that downtown's demographics were tilted too far in one direction, and that approval for more low-income projects should be halted to allow development of market rate projects until the demographic mix was better balanced.

Recently, members of the City Council's Neighborhoods & Housing Committee have concluded that this time has arrived; they cite the recent proliferation of market rate condos and apartments as evidence that downtown is now--or soon will be--an economically balanced neighborhood. Not all downtown stakeholders agree; they point out that most of the upper-income projects are still on the drawing board and that, even when completed, they will not overbalance the preponderance of low-income residences downtown.

What's our long-term vision for downtown Tacoma? What dispersion of incomes and types of housing support that vision? Certainly there have been significant changes downtown in the past ten years that warrant a collective look at housing policies.

1 comment:

  1. Good topic.

    Downtown should aim to have integrated housing downtown both in the overall area and in each housing unit.

    City Manager Eric Anderson has emphasized the importance of this goal on many occasions.

    The accepted rate for low income housing in an area is 15 to 20 percent. Hopefully, the city will follow his recommendations.

    Housings studies throughout the United States over the last 25 years have established that an over saturation of low income housing and poverty in an area is highly correlated with increased crime. Defensible Space pg 23:

    . . .social variables that correlate highly with different types of crime, also correlate with . . . percentage of resident population receiving welfare, the percentage of . . . parents receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children . . . and the per capita disposable income . . . (Pg 23)

    Based on the information from the City of Tacoma, the following sections of downtown Tacoma have the following low income housing densities (City of Tacoma Demographic Data):

    98402 Area................46.7 percent
    Census Tract 61601....50.2 percent
    Census Tract 61602....21.5 percent
    Census Tracts 61601
    61602& 02 combined....38.7 percent

    9th and Broadway......94 percent

    Thus, downtown Tacoma has an exceedingly high percent of low income housing and far above the recommended of “integrated housing” recommendations of 15-20 percent low income housing units. The above figure include both existing units and units under construction in 2005.

    Downtown also has a very high concentration of poverty in relation to other areas in the city.

    As an example, the entire Zip Code of 98402, encompassing much of downtown has a low income housings rate of 46.7 percent, over double the appropriate rate for integrated housing.

    The intersection of 9th and Broadway sits in close proximity to the Winthrop Apartments, Olympus Hotel and the Colonial Square Apartments. Within a 2 block radius, the low income housing rate is estimated to be 94 percent, a rate over 4 times the target rate for an integrated neighborhood. In order for this area to be balanced and achieve an 80/20 ratio between market rate and low income housing, an additional 1168 market rate housing units would have to be built in this area.

    Despite the recent construction in Tacoma, downtown Tacoma continues to have an extremely high low income housing rate and high poverty and in excess than nearly every area of Tacoma.

    Unfortunately, very few market rate housing projects are being built on or around the northern portion of Pacific Avenue downtown.

    The high concentration of poverty downtown has caused crime and continual social disorder which has well documented by the police, merchants and the press of the last year (See One Downtown, Two Different Pictures, Tacoma Daily Index 7/20/2006)

    Hopefully, the city will take a integrated approach to low income housing and

    1)encourage market rate housing to be built downtown and continue to bar further low income housing projects until the downtown can be integrated with a 15 to 20 percent low income housing rate.

    2) look for other areas of the city which can absorb intergrated (80/20) low income housing units.

    3) continue to keep the Miller amendment intact until the downtown can have more market rate housing built up to properly integrate the area. Lifting the amendment at this time would cause the problems downtown to escalate further.