Tacoma Housing Authority: Building Brighter Futures for Children and Schools in the City of Destiny
Article written by Alexis Etow,JD of ChangeLab Solutions.
Original article may be viewed on their blog.
Overlooking the glassy shores of Washington’s Puget Sound, 32 miles southwest of Seattle, sits the port city of Tacoma. Nicknamed the “City of Destiny” in the second half of the 19th century, Tacoma was envisioned as a New York City of the West Coast. In fact, it did not become the next Big Apple — Seattle turned out to be the more prosperous city — and would struggle with disinvestment and growing rates of crime, drug use, and homelessness. Today, however, Tacoma is leading the way in cutting-edge housing strategies that holistically address the needs of low-income families and communities.
In my previous post exploring the intersection of education and housing, I began examining the powerful influence that public housing authorities can have on children and families living in low-income neighborhoods. Both housing authorities and public schools “share the work of serving the nation’s poorest children.” Partnerships between the two can help improve children’s academic trajectories as well as their long-term health and economic stability. These efforts can also improve the quality of neighborhood schools and the surrounding community. Having access to a safe, stable, and affordable home as well as a high-quality, well-resourced school are critical to a child’s academic success, long-term health, and economic viability.
In this post, I will focus on the innovative work Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) is doing to secure healthy and prosperous futures for children and families in Tacoma’s poorest neighborhoods. Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit Tacoma to meet with THA staff and to see firsthand the communities in which this important work is unfolding.
THA’s Education Project
When THA began designing its Education Project nearly 8 years ago, “there were not many templates out there,” recalls Michael Mirra, THA’s executive director. According to Mirra, they built the program based on the hope that housing outcomes could influence school outcomes and vice versa. As Mirra explains, “even the fanciest schools are useless if there’s housing instability. Measures of school success mean nothing unless social determinants [of health] are addressed.”
Even the fanciest schools are useless if there’s housing instability. Measures of school success mean nothing unless social determinants of health are addressed.
THA’s Education Project is unique for several reasons. First, it connects two fundamental determinants of health: education and housing. Second, it takes a holistic approach; THA’s programs address each stage of a child’s educationfrom early childhood to postsecondary education and training. These programs are strategically designed not only to support struggling families and help children succeed academically but also to bolster the schools they attend and the communities in which they live.
And finally, THA has developed key partnerships with Tacoma Public Schools, community organizations, and financial institutions, among others, to provide families with education and employment supports, housing assistance, and financial empowerment. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided the seed funding for the Education Project and the groundwork for some of these partnerships. The City of Tacoma has also played a critical role; the city’s focus on cross-systems collaboration helped THA establish meaningful relationships with other service agencies across the city and county. Mirra attributes some of this cohesion to the relatively small size of Tacoma, which he says “creates a congenial landscape to do work.” The following sections highlight two of THA’s programs that illustrate the Education Project’s distinctive features.
McCarver Elementary School
One exemplary model that embodies THA’s innovative vision and success is its program at McCarver Elementary School.
McCarver serves the Hilltop neighborhood, which sits above Tacoma’s bustling downtown and waterfront. Before THA’s Education Project, McCarver had more homeless students than other schools in the region. The student turnover rate was so high that nearly every student who began the school year in the fall had left the school by the end of the year, and students who began midyear also tended not to finish out the year. The turnover was due primarily to acute poverty and the challenges that come with it.
As a result, THA began thinking through ways they could “spend a housing dollar, not only to house families but to promote their children’s school success and the success of schools that serve low-income children,” according to Mirra.
With the Elementary School Housing Assistance Program, THA devised a program through which families who received housing assistance were incentivized to keep their children enrolled at McCarver. Beginning with the 2011–12 school year, THA provided housing assistance for a cohort of nearly 50 families who were (1) homeless or in danger of being homeless and (2) had children attending McCarver. In the first year, the pilot cohort consisted of 85 children — approximately 20 percent of McCarver’s total enrollment.
As part of the pilot program, THA provided families with heavily subsidized rent over the 5 years. In exchange, cohort families promised to keep their children enrolled in school, participate in and support their children’s education, and actively further their education and employment pursuits. Another key component of the initiative was social and familial support, which Tacoma Public Schools provided in the form of 2 caseworkers who were based at McCarver.
Fast-forward 5 years to today: Children in the THA cohort have a student turnover rate of 7 percent — notably lower than the rate for the rest of the school (which is now 91 percent). Their reading scores improved significantly, and their families’ average income doubled. Building on the initiative’s success, THA began expanding its Education Project, looking for new opportunities to leverage school and community partnerships in order revitalize some of Tacoma’s other financially strapped and housing insecure communities.
About 2 miles east of downtown Tacoma is Salishan, a formerly distressed neighborhood that has since been converted to a mixed-income community as part of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hope VI program.
Salishan is another community where THA is deeply involved. When a child from Salishan enrolls in kindergarten at one of Tacoma’s public schools, THA opens a savings account in his or her name and deposits an initial $50 to help the family get started with saving for their child’s college education. From kindergarten to 5th grade, THA matches the family’s deposits into the account, up to $400 per year.
When the student moves on to middle and high school, THA deposits up to $700 per year as the student achieves designated academic milestones. Upon graduation from high school, a student who has participated fully in the program will have at least $9,700 in funds for college.,
Helping to alleviate the high costs of attending college or getting a postsecondary education is just one of the Children’s Savings Account (CSA) program’s many benefits. Initial evaluations of the program’s effectiveness indicate that participating students do better in school, are 3 times more likely to attend college, and are 4 times more likely to graduate from college than their peers who do not have a CSA.
The CSA program is designed to benefit the entire community, not just the children who are enrolled. One of the goals is to increase financial literacy. Accordingly, all students at Lister Elementary School in Salishan receive financial training as part of the regular curriculum. Parents also receive financial training. Coupled with the savings account, the program offers an attainable path into mainstream banking systems.
THA is still trying to find solutions to some of the most challenging obstacles to the Education Project — cost being the underlying concern. Tacoma’s soaring housing market and high rental prices are forcing families with Section 8 vouchers or living in unsubsidized housing to move elsewhere — a serious problem for programs that rely on families’ staying at certain schools to provide effective outreach, conduct program evaluations, and ensure the same level of investment and support from Tacoma Public Schools that made McCarver’s pilot program so successful.
The affordability of program evaluation is also a challenge. Evaluation is a necessary piece of scaling up THA’s efforts, but paying for continued third-party data reporting is financially difficult.
Addressing these challenges takes time and teamwork. Innovative partnerships and strong leadership will be essential to achieving THA’s vision: “a future where everyone has an affordable, safe and nurturing home, where neighborhoods are attractive places to live, work, attend school, shop and play, and where everyone has the support they need to succeed as parents, students, wage earners and neighbors.” Like the Education Project and Children’s Savings Account program, THA’s overall vision will require long-term investment and continued collaborations to come to fruition. But the payoff, both for families and their community, will be transformative.
 Wissel P and Ferguson A. Why One Eccentric Man Named Tacoma ‘The City of Destiny.’ KNKX. April 23, 2016. Accessed February 15, 2018.
 Galvez M and Gallagher M. How HUD and Public Housing Authorities Can Support Students. Urban Institute. September 9, 2016.
 Between 2005 and 2011, the student turnover rate ranged between 100% and 179%.
 As the custodian of the account, THA oversees withdrawals. Funds may only be withdrawn when the student graduates from high school and enrolls in a qualified postsecondary program.
 THA’s contributions to students’ accounts who do not complete the program are used to fund future Salishan students.
 For low-income students who are enrolled in the Washington State College Bound Scholarship Enrollment Project, which pays for their tuition with grants (provided that the student maintains a GPA of 2.0 or higher, has good behavioral standing, graduates from high school, and gets into a postsecondary institution), the money accrued in their CSA can help pay for costly non-tuition expenses, like housing.
 In reflecting on the program’s success, Mirra highlighted the importance of Heritage Bank, which he described as a “community-minded bank open to invest in its own community.” Heritage opened a branch in Salishan, which became a key landmark for CSA recipients. As Mirra explained, “kids walking by their bank can think of their money in there.” The program helps remove some of the negative connotations families may have about banking institutions. For kids in Salishan, “the bank is a friendly place as opposed to being scary,” says Mirra. The bank even hosts small celebrations for middle schoolers when they come to deposit their funds.
Alexis Etow, JD, is a staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions, where she works at the intersection of education and health. Her focus is on developing policy strategies and facilitating multi-sector collaborations and partnerships between key community stakeholders to create healthier school environments that support children, young people, and their families.