May 2, 2023
Like many communities across the country, Tacoma, Washington, faces a housing supply challenge.
Less than an hour from Seattle by train, the city expects 127,000-plus new residents by 2040 — an increase of more than half of its current population, which already feels the acute financial pains of a housing shortage.
"Roughly 40 percent of Tacoma residents are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs, some well over that amount," Mayor Victoria Woodards reported in her 2022 State of the City address. To help lower those costs, her administration is boosting housing production through targeted interventions like Home in Tacoma and the 27-point Affordable Housing Action Strategy, adopted in 2018 to create 6,000 new housing units over 10 years, among other goals.
As president of the National League of Cities (NLC), Woodards has also partnered with the American Planning Association to launch the Housing Supply Accelerator, a national campaign to improve local capacity, identify critical solutions, and speed reforms that enable communities and developers to work together to produce, preserve, and provide a diverse range of quality housing.
"At the end of the day, we all want housing, and we all want the right kind of housing for the people who live in our communities," Woodards says. "We really have to use those relationships to find out what the best practices are across the country if we're going to solve this issue."
Planning sat down with the mayor to learn about Tacoma's strategy to make housing more abundant and affordable, which innovative approaches she's tracking across the country, and where planners can help elected officials build more housing. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The truth is that by investing in housing, the payoff for an elected official is the fact that everyone who works in their city or wants to live in their city has a place to call home.
PLANNING: Why did you decide to make housing so central to your work with the NLC?
WOODARDS: As president, you get to decide what you want to focus on for the year. For me, it was very clear that housing needed to be one of those areas, especially because of what I see happening in my city. As I talked to mayors, council members, and elected leaders across this country, I found that everybody is dealing with some kind of crisis around housing, whether it's affordability, accessibility, or attainability. Housing is a basic need, and when people don't have a place to live, it plays out in so many ways. I look at my own city, at the amount of people facing homelessness — the only way we're truly going to solve some of our communities' issues is through housing.
I was so excited to know that we were already talking with APA about a potential partnership. The idea that we will be able to leverage the expertise of all of our cities, towns, and villages with the expertise of planners from across America to look at who's doing it well, who needs to have just a few more ideas, who needs to tweak their strategy just a little bit, who can't figure it out at all and needs help. To have all of these experts at the table, all of our partners — who, in some instances and cities, don't necessarily even work together, right? We're not always best friends with our development community, because we're the ones who say how they can build, where they can build. Sometimes, those relationships are strained. But the reality is, we can't solve this issue alone. We need all of our partners, whether that's organizations like APA or rental organizations or development organizations or realtor organizations.
We've all got to be at the table together because, at the end of the day, we all want housing, and we all want the right kind of housing for the people who live in our communities. I believe that's what developers want. I believe that's what realtors want. And I certainly know that as elected officials, that's what we want for the people who call our cities home. I truly believe that when we work more closely together, that's when we're able to make real change.
PLANNING: How is your administration taking steps to address housing gaps locally?
WOODARDS: Five years ago, we launched our Affordable Housing Action Strategy, which has 27 detailed points about what we can do as a municipality to actually increase housing production and affordability in our community. Part of that strategy is what we're calling Home in Tacoma. We've just completed phase one, and now we're going into phase two. Phase one took almost two years to present to the council, and we passed it because our planning department engaged not only in innovation and using data to decide where growth makes sense, but because they also did a lot of outreach with people who live in our city, people who build in our city, and people who work in our city.
We made sure that we had everybody's voice at the table to match with the data we have to say, "this is what makes sense for Tacoma." Rather than just rule out single-family-only zoning across the whole city, we looked in areas that could handle density, so that when you're building, it makes sense. Like a corridor where there's access to transportation, where there are already amenities like a grocery store or a bank — the things needed in order to really be a dense community. Phase one was so thorough and really took into account a lot of people's opinions and a lot of data. I'm looking for phase two to do that, and that will come before the council in 2023.
PLANNING: What are some of the most innovative housing solutions you're seeing?
WOODARDS: Tacoma has fully embraced missing middle housing, and we're doing that in a number of ways. Sometimes that means building smaller: duplexes and triplexes and accessory dwelling units. It doesn't change the character of the neighborhood, but it allows for more people to live there. A senior who's having problems affording their basic mortgage every month can build an ADU in the back of their home, and a young person who's getting out of college, who still wants to stay in the community that they've grown up in, can have an affordable place to live. So it does two things: It gives that young person a place to live, but it also helps that senior stay in their home.
A lot of cities are addressing this too through the American Rescue Plan Act — and the sheer number of dollars that people have spent shows that there's a housing crisis. Cities have spent $16 billion on over 1,200 projects that will address affordable housing in their community. Boston invested $9 million as part of a $47 million acquisition for 36 multifamily buildings in East Boston. In Milwaukee, they budgeted $15 million to focus on foreclosed properties. They are actually going to put 150 foreclosed properties back on the tax rolls, which then gives people a place to live. So we're getting creative about how to use the limited funding that we get. But we also have to make sure that we're continuing to tell our stories, so that we get additional funding opportunities to address affordable housing in our communities.
PLANNING: You're heading into an update of the city's comprehensive plan, One Tacoma. How does that factor into your housing strategy?
WOODARDS: You can't just wake up one day and say, "We want to build more affordable housing." It takes a little bit more than that. The comprehensive plan helps us not just design for today, but also think about how we're designing for tomorrow. It helps us decide the kind of future we want to build, what we want Tacoma to look like and feel like. I think that's really important. None of us knew that something like COVID was going to hit our communities, so you've got to be able to go back and update.
That's the great role of planners: They see the change every day. It's important to make sure that they're leading and guiding us, saying, "Hey, I see this around the corner." That is really the opportunity we have with our planning departments when we empower them. We rely on planners for their information and their innovation because they're the experts, they're on the front lines, and it's because they're engaged that they can share with us when it's time to change.
We rely on planners for their information and their innovation because they're the experts, they're on the front lines, and it's because they're engaged that they can share with us when it's time to change.
PLANNING: When it comes to reforming land use regulations, how can planners help position elected officials for success?
WOODARDS: Number one: engagement. They can invite the community in to make their voices be heard. They have that expertise that allows them to say, "Okay, this might sound really good and look really good, but at the end of the day, is it really feasible?" And they bring the best practices. We're here with planners all in the same room together, learning from one another. That's the greatest thing about some of this work we do: You don't have to be the person who knows it all. You just have to be able to pick up the phone and have other people that you can call on who will help you understand it.
And then there's facilitation. Planners can lead the conversations. There's nothing better than a planner who can speak planning, but then also translate that to the community so that they can understand it. And then comprehensive thinking. You can't just launch a plan or an idea or an initiative and not think about what other plans are on the table. What else have we done? What else have we learned? Being able to have that wide view of all the things that are happening is incredibly important.
PLANNING: What do elected leaders stand to gain by supporting long-term investments in housing and planning?
WOODARDS: The truth is that by investing in housing, the payoff for an elected official is the fact that everyone who works in their city or wants to live in their city has a place to call home. The importance of this conversation for me is making sure that every kid has a roof over their head, that every parent who gets up and goes to work every single day has a place to come home. It's about that police officer or that firefighter or that teacher or that server or that nurse, and that the community that they work in and contribute to cares enough to make sure, at the end of the day, that they have a place to be safe and a place to continue to want to achieve their dreams. So selfishly, for me, that's what it's all about: the people who call our community home or want to call our community home.
It is about climate change. It is about infrastructure. It is about addressing long term inequities. But behind that long list of things, it's about a person who is trying the best they can with all the tools they have to support themselves. A place to call home is a great way to show them that they are truly cared for and that they are wanted and needed.