Letters to the EditorSpotlight

Outrage over city’s response to the homelessness crisis, public discourse

The Tacoma city council meeting of 11/19 covered a range of topics including tax exemptions for developers, a temporary shelter site, labor and business contracts, tax adjustments, amendments to regulations governing shelter sites, and an ordinance extending the emergency authority of the council to address homelessness to a time when 95 percent of unsheltered individuals have available shelter. The council meeting also had a significant controversy which prompted individuals to force a recess. Councilmember Beale and Mayor Woodards were absent. 

To begin the meeting, a motion was made by councilmember Ibsen to strike ordinance number 28634 from the meeting, which would have authorized a non-exclusive franchise agreement with Rainier Connect to provide cable television in the city (a service previously done by TPU’s Click Network). It passed unanimously, with the justification that it was at the request of city staff. 

Council then proclaimed this Saturday as Small Business Saturday, which was accepted by a delegation of small business owners from across the city. They also proclaimed November 2019 as Entrepreneurship Month, and specifically honored Rain Incubator, a Tacoma based biotech company, and UWT’s own Thomas Kuljam who directs the VIBE center on campus. The VIBE’s mission is to help veterans with entrepreneurship and Rain Incubator is dedicated to helping women and young people start businesses, both of which are located on campus at different parts of the Tioga building and open to all in spite of their specific focuses. 

Public comment focused entirely around 3-5 agenda items. One was the contracting of the Low Income Housing Institute for the creation of a temporary tiny house style shelter site for a little under four hundred thousand dollar that would only operate up to eight months. Commentators encouraged this step, but mentioned the need for bathrooms, laundry, and a dumpster. One individual also mentioned the high cost of the contract, 388 thousand for 35 beds for up to eight months. I personally encouraged the city to continue developing a relationship with LIHI because the other work they do such as urban rest stops, which provide bathrooms, laundry, and showers for homeless individuals and their low income housing developments are very successful. The multi-family housing tax exemptions for profitable market-rate housing also drew ire from the crowd (and myself) in the backdrop of the homelessness crisis. 

The rest of the comments were reserved for two items on the back of the agenda, general comments around homelessness, and the disgruntled owner of Advanced Streams who was upset about the Click item being removed from the agenda. The first item changed regulations around geographic location and square footage sizes for shelters, a moved done in part to loosen regulations around existing shelter providers but also to bring in two churches that had stepped up to provide shelter space. The second ordinance extended the declaration of emergency and the emergency authority that granted in pursuance four different ordinances to a time where shelter is available to 95 percent of unsheltered residents per the number used by the annual Point In Time Count. 

Members of the Tacoma Democratic Socialists of America showed up in force to advocate for unhoused people, speaking in a unified voice that the Point In Time Count consistently under-represents the actual number of unhoused people, saying that homeless service providers rely on a different count that places the total as 3 to 4 times as much. Members expressed the need for the city to assemble all they have done and all they are currently doing into an accessible portion of their website, and consistently mentioned that while these moves are a step in the right direction they are not nearly enough. 

Many other people spoke to this issue and the issue of homelessness in general. Homeowners in hilltop wanted to know why the city couldn’t make use of large abandoned buildings like the Kmart in North Tacoma, use shipping containers, or expressed their opposition to the previous tent ban, and vented their general frustrations to council. One currently homeless man came forward in a walker, telling his story about his terminal illness, how he has no one to rely on, lives in a tent in People’s Park and he’s certain he will die in the streets and will only leave the park if forced to do so. The voice of the public was unified, and people’s comments were being met with cheers and applause, something Deputy Mayor McCarthy had a difficult time controlling in spite of attempt to remind the crowd. One more commentator came forward expressing his resentment of the council’s anti-clapping rule (which was met with applause) and McCarthy closed public comment with five more people to go. McCarthy’s move sparked outrage in the crowd, as two of the remaining speakers were currently homeless individuals, and for them coming to city council often means missing a meal, a bunk, or leaving their belongings exposed. People began shouting at city council and McCarthy was unable to calm the room so he called a recess. Tacoma DSA’s Lead Organizer then called upon the next person in line to give their public comment anyway, and just like that all five people managed to have their voices heard to a crowd of people, in spite of city council leaving the room.  Disruptions like these aren’t the norm, but neither is closing public comment for everyone due to the applause of some. 

Several items were on the agenda beyond these issues, but things like contracts with construction companies for road repair and the renewal of collective bargaining agreements are generally viewed as the staple “keeping the lights on” issues for the city and don’t tend to generate controversy, which I’m personally thankful for. Without attending the council’s study session prior to the meeting and without presentations on many of these topics it’s difficult to speak to them, although I would note that I find it unusual that the city would contract with Wells Fargo for banking services, as indicated by item 27 on the agenda. 

In another unusual move, city staff did not prepare a presentation on the two multi-family housing tax exemption projects. In spite of another unanimous passage, councilmember Ushka (Eastside) expressed her concerns about the lack of transparency there, and did ask staff to state the rental costs for the units. Councilmember Thoms made sure to ask about parking built into the projects The cheapest units were small studios renting for 1,100 a month, and both had less parking than housing units. Councilmembers did acknowledge several of the concerns in the room over action on homelessness, and said that this was just the first of many steps they hope to take. Councilmember Blocker took time to vent his frustration to the public, claiming that hilltop bore the brunt of the homelessness issue and that’s why he justified things like the park tent camping ban. Final ordinances adjusted tax rates in accordance to the biennial budget. All items, motions, proclamations, etc passed unanimously. 

Note: City Council for 11/26 cancelled.

Agendas, minutes, and audio recordings https://cityoftacoma.legistar.com/DepartmentDetail.aspx?ID=22566&GUID=F23EE68E-8E57-4BEC-8601-B969C461E3B3&R=8b32d8c2-d42b-4f41-a78b-413ef88fee15Want to tag along, ask a question, or a raise an issue? You can reach me at asuwtcl@uw.edu