TACOMA, Wash. — Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards on Thursday offered a grim tally of what two years of the COVID-19 pandemic had wrought on the city while rallying residents to tackle the current challenges full-on, noting, “You can’t wish strength into being; you’ve got to build it.”
The annual State of the City address was delivered in person to a small audience in council chambers, along with a virtual broadcast for viewers at home.
The mayor focused on these areas of concern: public safety and violent crime, the city’s continued recovery from COVID, affordable housing and homelessness, as well as “the anti-racist transformation efforts that span every aspect of our work.”
PUBLIC SAFETY/VIOLENT CRIME
Woodards ticked off crime statistics covering a span between 2020 and 2021. Those included 31 homicides each year, a 15 percent increase in vandalism and property destruction, year-over-year increase of nearly 20 percent in assaults, 66 percent rise in vehicle thefts and more than 85 percent increase in arson cases, “making this by far the highest on record in the last five years.”
“We know that everyone is feeling the effects of these crimes,” she said.
She pointed to two programs using American Rescue Plan Act funds serving as “short-term solutions,” including temporary private security enhancements for business districts and the recently announced broken window replacement fund for businesses.
“As crime continues to increase, the department is hovering at approximately 50 vacancies out of 364 fully-funded, commissioned police positions,” Woodards said. “To put this into perspective, our police department has historically seen a 4 percent vacancy rate, and what we are seeing now is an unprecedented 14 percent.”
She noted that while nationwide, crime had been on the rise, “when it comes to this issue – the state of our city is unacceptable. We can, we must, and, more importantly, we will do better.”
In addition to mentioning the city’s recently approved hiring incentives, she announced a new Tacoma Police Department recruiting initiative, Reflect and Protect, with its own website, reflectandprotect.org, “to attract new officers who reflect Tacoma, and officers who will protect Tacoma.”
“Filling these vacancies will increase financial efficiencies by lowering officer overtime and preventing our current officers from experiencing burnout,” she said.
Woodards also announced the launch of Tacoma’s Police-Community Reconciliation work, a program designed by the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Funding comes from a Microsoft grant.
“In this framework the city will begin with an acknowledgment of the harm that we the city as an institution have caused,” she said.
“We will build on the work by Project PEACE, the Community’s Police Advisory Committee, and Heal the Heart, as well as the perspectives and experiences that have been shared in the past and the present.”
ECONOMIC RECOVERY FROM PANDEMIC
Woodards acknowledged the continuing struggles for many businesses, including back rent, the end of utility moratoriums, supply-chain delays and rising prices. Add to that the struggle to maintain a workforce, particularly in minimum-wage work.
She noted the city has provided 450 loans and grants totaling over $7 million to help stabilize small businesses and jobs in Tacoma, “with 54 percent going to Black, indigenous and people of color-owned businesses and organizations.”
As an example of further support, the Washington Business Center of the Minority Business Development Agency in Tacoma last summer was awarded $2 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce to continue operations through 2026.
“Out of the 38 MBDA business centers in the nation, only two of them are operated by a city. I am so proud that Tacoma is one of these very rare models,” she said.
Woodards also made note of the city and Washington Maritime Blue’s partnership in opening the Tacoma Maritime Innovation Incubator last year.
“Based out of the Center for Urban Waters, this incubator is supporting seven diverse firms helping them to grow and refine their products and services so that they will contribute to the economy growing in the South Sound,” she said.
Another touted program aims to tackle multiple issues, including a shortage of health care workers.
Introduction to Healthcare Apprenticeship Pathways Pilot is from a partnership of Workforce Central and Tacoma Housing Authority, which prioritizes recruitment of THA residents. The plan is to train 40 Tacoma residents in a 7-week Certified Nursing Assistant Certification program, with options to enter entry level positions, “or transition to an apprenticeship position as they continue their education.”
“Everyone enrolled in this program will receive full wrap-around services during the training and for up to six months after the program, including a weekly cash stipend,” she said.
Looking forward, Woodards said the city was “proactively positioning” to diversify the city’s economy through the proposed 5G project in the Tideflats and developing the city’s Green Economy work “to decarbonize and address climate change,” she said.
Green economy proposals accepted through March 29.
HOMELESSNESS AND HOUSING
Three years after the city’s Affordable Housing Action Strategy was presented, Woodards said Thursday, “The city has experienced significant changes in its demographic and housing market conditions.”
“There is no data point needed to punctuate the fact that we are in a visible crisis of public health and personal dignity,” she said.
Spiraling housing costs are well known in the Tacoma metro, with increases in rents and mortgages both outpacing wages.
“Roughly 40 percent of Tacoma residents are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs, some well over that amount,” she said. “We have learned in our work since declaring a state of emergency on this issue that there are no easy answers.”
The city declared a public health emergency related to homelessness in 2017.
She pointed to last year’s changes approved for the city’s multifamily property tax exemption program for developers; 289 affordable units coming online in 2021 for those at or below 60 percent area median income, with additional units of permanent supportive housing under construction; the preservation of 141 units through rehab and city-backed home repairs; and assisting more than 31,000 people through the city’s landlord-tenant program, along with utility and housing assistance, among other initiatives.
“The city has provided 854 households with over $6 million in rental assistance and provided 1,800 households with over $2 million in utility assistance,” she said.
She noted the growth in shelter bed capacity with work toward more, along with the acquisition of the former Comfort Inn, now Aspen Court, providing shelter beds for up to 120 people for two years, transitioning to permanent supportive housing after that.
“For the 2021-2022 biennium, we are investing nearly $28 million in housing and homelessness response services. Additionally, we have committed just over $12 million, or 40 percent of our (American Rescue Plan Act) funding to address the issue of housing and homelessness,” Woodards said.
She added the city was moving “to advance equitable home ownership in 2022.”
“We completed the Disparity Study on Homeownership, and now we will set priorities and measure equity goals for the recommendations presented in the report,” she said. “I still believe that we can be a national leader in how we take care of the most vulnerable in our community.
“The people sleeping under tents, tarps, or makeshift structures are our neighbors. ... They remain our neighbors whether or not they are sheltered.
“If you want to support and strengthen our approach to homelessness, please advocate and support managed shelter sites.”
A “participatory” budget project also is starting in Tacoma during the budget-development cycle, including allocating more than $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.
“Each district receives $1 million for community members to pitch ideas, turn those ideas into proposals, and then the entire community votes and selects projects for the city to fund and implement projects,” Woodards said.
She noted the program is starting in council Districts 2 and 4, with more details to come.
In closing, the mayor called on residents to work together amid the current challenges.
“While I have said many times tonight that the solutions are neither straightforward or quick, together I know we will continue to press in the direction of progress in our work to uplift, protect, shelter and support every member of our community,” she said.
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