Amylah Perry was a model citizen throughout Tacoma Housing Authority’s ribbon cutting ceremony at Bay Terrace, its newest development, on Monday, Aug. 18.
Amylah, 4, listened to the dignitaries, did not spill a single crumb on her pink and white dress and matching hat. She did not fret in the heat and, just after noon, she marched to the podium with her Head Start classmates and raised a banner.
“Welcome Home!” it read, and those kids meant it.
Their families have moved into apartments in the mix of 70 units in town homes, cottages or the four-story “mid-rise” on Yakima Avenue between South 27th and 25th streets. Their new school – their Head Start classroom – is nestled in the 6,925-square-foot community center. They dare challenge the ropes on the cool new play structure in one of several playgrounds and community gardens that give the high-density redevelopment an open feeling.
Midway through the program, Amylah’s mom, Aashia Gardner, told the crowd of 200 what that means to her Amylah and Decarlos Perry, 2. Instead of doubling up in relatives’ or friends’ places, they have a home of their own, with rooms of their own.
“I can pay the rent with a smile and have money left over for other bills,” Gardner said.
She is using the resources at the community center to plan how to go back to school for the skills she needs to earn enough to support her family, to become independent.
“This has given me the best opportunity to change my life around,” she said.
And that is the point of those two refreshed blocks of attractive buildings and the network of resources and partnerships woven through them.
Because it was a ribbon-cutting, Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra, THA commissioners Greg Mowat and Judge Stanley Rumbaugh, Chuck Weinstock of JP Morgan Chase, Chris Walvoord of Enterprise Community Investments, Pamela Trevithick of GGLO architects and the rep from Absher Construction Co., led the program with the tale of the mighty challenge of building it all.
It began in 1970, when a private developer slathered poorly-designed apartments that were not built to last on four blocks between South 15th and 27th streets between Yakima Avenue and South 'G' street. Conifer Village flopped on the open market and, in 1976, THA did what it would not do now: It bought the commercial failure. THA renamed it Hillside Terrace. Twenty years later, in 1996, the buildings, like big chunks of the Hilltop, were worn out. THA asked the feds for the money to tear it down and rebuild it.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development responded with a potential disaster: It gave the demolition money for all of it, but nothing for rebuilding. One hundred and eighty families would lose their homes if THA used the money.
New to the board of commissioners, Rumbaugh fought the feds and won time for THA to find the reconstruction money.
“In 2002 we got the financing for the 2300 and 1500 blocks,” Mirra said. “That was our last big project before Salishan.”
The buildings were solid, the design attractive and the landscaping welcoming.
During the decade that THA focused most of its energy on financing and rebuilding Salishan on the East Side, a curious thing happened on the Hilltop. Private developers picked up properties near the new THA properties and built equally attractive homes and condos, from the affordable to high end. Other non-profits, including Mercy Housing, followed suit.
“Both lovely and ugly are contagious,” Mirra said. “Set a high design bar. Invest in neighborhoods that need investment. Do a good job, and you will embolden other people.”
You also will challenge them to meet that design standard, whether they are building for the wealthy or those of limited means. You should, Mirra added, be building for both and everyone in between to maintain economic diversity on the Hilltop. “There are 10,000 jobs on the Hilltop, and only about 500 are filled by people who live on the Hilltop.”
Bay Terrace offers homes for people with a range of incomes, from very low to work force. The right mix will help rebuild the once varied and vibrant economy on the Hilltop as people live, work, walk and shop there. But the development was a long time coming.
After Salishan came the Great Recession of 2008. It took THA until 2013 to assemble the funds to tear down the rest of Hillside Terrace and get the design and construction started on Phase one, 70 units, of the rebuilding. THA is working on assembling even more money for construction of Phases two and three. The total project will include from 140 to 190 apartments, with community buildings and enough green space, community gathering areas and trees new and old to belie the high density that puts it in compliance with the City of Tacoma’s Comprehensive Plan.
Perhaps the Amazing Amylah could help. She could bring potential investors to her Head Start classroom, the only one in Tacoma not at a Tacoma School District site. That should underline the strength of the collaboration and trust between THA and Tacoma Schools. As she breezes through, she could point out the computer room and the community room.
She could point across the street at Goodwill, and perhaps drop the name of a neighbor who is learning job skills there.
She could explain why she can’t just waltz into the mid-rise apartment buildings, with their excellent security system from the doors to the garage to the cameras that monitor all public spaces, including the library alcoves on each floor, the raised gardens and the exterior play space. The books in those library shelves, like the ones in the community building, are free for the taking and reading, she might add.
She could introduce some of the elected officials she charmed at the ribbon-cutting.
State Senator Jeannie Darneille might speak of THA’s reputation for building housing that is beautiful, humane – and efficient.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland could repeat her praise of THA’s reputation for building effective partnerships that empower residents to become so educated and wise and innovative that companies looking to relocate here can’t resist Tacoma’s awesome talent pool.
Tacoma City Councilmember Lauren Walker, who has lived on the Hilltop for 26 years, would mention the awful days of gangs and drugs and talk about all the good THA has brought with its developments and its example of accountability.
“Tacoma Housing Authority’s work helps make Tacoma a wonderful place to grow up and raise a family,” she would say again.