Millions set aside for homelessness projects, affordable housing in Pierce County budget Read more

The Pierce County Council approved a budget with some of the largest allocations earmarked for affordable housing development and homelessness programs ever, totaling more than $253 million in investments.

The council passed its $2.97 billion budget on Tuesday night with plans to triple homeless shelter space and build hundreds of more affordable housing units.

“If we’re not willing to make some investments directly to buy land, to help build, we’re not going to solve this,” Council Chairman Derek Young (D-Gig Harbor) told The News Tribune.

The county estimates housing need in past decade has surpassed development. Pierce County median home sales prices have increased 108 percent, and rental rates have increased 78 percent, outpacing the 10 percent increases in median household income.

Most of the 2021-2022 budget dollars for housing — $171.8 million — come from the county’s coffers and grants, but some of the county’s federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars will be allocated to secure permanent housing. Congress passed ARPA in March to help local governments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic through broad rules for spending, like refunding health departments for COVID-19 expenses and housing those experiencing homelessness.

In previous years, the county spent less than 1 percent of its annual budget on affordable housing.

The University of Washington Tacoma released a 2020 report that estimated the county spent an average of $2.3 million annually on affordable housing. The report critiques the county for its lack of investment in housing options.

Executive Bruce Dammeier has told The News Tribune increased investment in housing is his biggest priority.

The Housing and Homelessness Fund is the county’s largest housing-related allocation in the budget with $128 million. The fund holds monies from state grants, the Tacoma Housing Authority, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars.

The fund provides loan programs for homeowner rehabilitation, home-buyer assistance, and affordable housing development and preservation, and homeless service providers with funds to help house those experiencing homelessness, according to the proposed budget.

Before the pandemic and a windfall of federal COVID-19 dollars, the fund’s budget was $28 million. Once Congress gave Pierce County $158 million in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the fund’s budget surged to $133 million last year. The new budget sets aside $128 million for the fund.

The historic investment includes a few new ideas.

Dammeier’s budget proposal included $25 million for a “Community Village Project,” a village of microhomes and mobile homes to house those experiencing homelessness. The funds would buy land, develop infrastructure, design and construct the space. According to preliminary estimates in a county presentation, the county is considering at least 400 units in the village, which would be completed by July 2024.

Pierce County has plans to sell 11 parcels on Tacoma Avenue that are currently used for storage or administrative services. Ali Modarres, director of urban studies at University of Washington Tacoma told The News Tribune in 2019 these uses don’t lead to a robust downtown core.

Young said he wants to see the properties sold and used for retail and business on the ground level and affordable housing above.

The council also approved a $55 million expenditure of ARPA dollars to purchase more land to offer shelter space and more low-cost housing opportunities.

The Human Services Department asked for more than $26 million to double shelter beds across Pierce County in the next two years.

These investments mark a turn for Pierce County’s handling of the homelessness and affordable housing crisis.

“At this point, we’re all recognizing it can’t get much worse. What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked well enough. So let’s try something different,” Pierce County’s Human Services director Heather Moss told The News Tribune in July . “We have resources, we have a lot of political will and we have a lot of community support.”