Public Housing Profile: Michael Mirra from the Tacoma Housing Authority- Part I

Photo of Michael Mirrra 2013-10-30

We at ^Housing Futures believe that it is as important to celebrate the people who work, live and care about social housing as much as the communities, work and programs that are operated.  In this line of thought, we ask that you let us know if you, someone you know or a resident work, live or advocate on behalf of social housing and should be interviewed and highlighted.  Below you will learn about the Executive Director of the Tacoma County Housing Authority and gain insights into what it is like to direct a medium/large sized authority in the USA.

Q: What is your background (place of birth, place of residence, education, profession)?

A: I live in Tacoma, Washington.  I am presently the executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) in Tacoma, WA.  I have served in that position since 2004.  Before that I served for about two years as THA’s general counsel.  Prior to joining THA, I practiced law for about 25 years with Columbia Legal Services in Washington State and legal services in Tennessee representing low-income persons and organizations in civil matters.  I graduated from the College of the University of Chicago and from Vanderbilt Law School.  I grew up in Queens, New York City.

Q:Can you tell us about your organization?

A: The primary mission of the Tacoma Housing Authority is to provide high quality housing and supportive services to persons and families in need.  We seek to do this in ways that also get two other things done.  First, we want the households we serve to succeed, not just as tenants, but also, as our mission statement contemplates, as “parents, students, wage earners and builders of assets.” If they are capable of working, we want their time on our programs to be transforming in those ways, and temporary.  We want this certainly for grownups, but emphatically for children because we do not wish them to need our housing when they grow up.  Second, we want to help our communities succeed and to help ensure that their success leaves room for all types and incomes of households.  We seek to do our part in making neighborhoods “attractive places to live, work, attend school, shop, and play”, and to help Tacoma and Pierce County be “safe, vibrant, prosperous, attractive and just.”  When these efforts work, they are a very good use of a housing dollar.

Understood this way, this work puts us face to face with age-old questions in the United States about poverty, the effect of place and neighborhood on a family’s prospects to escape it, and how a housing dollar can make escape more likely.  This work entangles us in questions of economic justice, racial justice, community as well as housing development, individual responsibility, and the appropriate role of government.  We and our many partners see these questions up close, and that makes the work challenging. Sometimes we see the answers, and that makes the work meaningful.

THA is a public housing authority.  We are also a Moving to Work (MTW) public housing authority.  Our MTW status helps us do this work creatively, efficiently and flexibly to account for the needs and markets of Tacoma and Pierce County.  We have a nonprofit affiliate organization.  We are also a public development authority.  That helps too.

We do this work in four main ways.

First, THA develops housing and real estate.  THA seeks, by what it builds and how it builds, to create properties that serve a range of needs and that are financially sustainable, environmentally innovative, and attractive.  It seeks by its development to encourage others to invest in neighborhoods that need investment.  For this purpose, we try to set an example with our design.  We tell ourselves that both ugly and lovely are contagious.  If we design and build attractive properties then other developers are more likely to do so.  In particular, we try to show that the higher residential densities that the city’s comprehensive plan directs can also look very nice.

THA also helps to develop or finance housing for other Tacoma and Pierce County nonprofits that share our mission.  Sometimes we are their lender.  Sometimes we are their developer.  Most of the time, we commit our rental assistance long term to their project to support debt and to provide operating expenses.  We do this for several reasons.  Those other organizations may serve people with special needs, such as persons who are mentally ill or dependent on drugs or alcohol or fleeing domestic violence.  THA does not have the specialized skills necessary to serve these populations.  A good way for THA to serve them is to finance the efforts of other high capacity organizations with those skills.  THA’s financing also helps them leverage other sources of money, public and private.  This brings more resources into Tacoma and Pierce County.  That is good. Finally, THA’s development and financing can help to strengthen our nonprofit partners.  That too is good.

Second, THA owns and manages affordable apartments and homes that we offer for rent.  We are one of the larger residential landlords in the area.  We seek to maintain our properties so they are attractive and enjoyable places to live and are assets for their neighborhoods.

Third, we help people pay their rent for apartments or homes that they lease from private landlords.  Our programs that do this are our largest in terms of dollars spent and people served.  We do this in partnership with hundreds of private landlords.  THA also funds specialized forms of rental assistance to address households with particular needs.  Some examples are rental assistance programs for homeless families with children, homeless youth without families, homeless young adults, homeless families with enrolled public school students, homeless students during their community college enrollment, homeless veterans, persons in nursing homes who could live on their own if only they could afford housing, and families who need housing to prevent or shorten their children’s need for foster care.  We also pay to house teenagers aging out of foster care who would otherwise begin their adulthood by becoming homeless.

Fourth, THA provides or arranges for supportive services.  We do this for people who need help to succeed as tenants.  Elderly or disabled persons, for example, may need help to live on their own. Families coming from homelessness or fleeing domestic violence may need help to stabilize.  Services make their stabilization a lot more likely.  Moreover, we seek to help families and children prosper.  We help people get job skills, find work, learn English, get a driver’s license, clean up credit, reduce debt, and acquire assets.  Assets can help a family manage temporary losses of income.  They can help a family pass on a prosperity to children.  In asset building of another kind, THA’s Education Project seeks ways to spend a housing dollar not only to house a family but also to help them and their children succeed in school and to promote the success of schools and colleges that serve low-income students.

THA seeks to do this work in partnership with private landlords, the Tacoma Public School District, Tacoma Community College, University of Washington at Tacoma, Bates Technical College, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Social and Health Services, many nonprofit housing and service providers, advocates, community organizations, the City of Tacoma, Pierce County, the local judiciary, and many public and private sources of funding and financing.

THA is a Board of five community volunteers and a staff of about 130 people.  THA’s statement of values may also help to answer your question.  It states THA’s belief that its work is important.  It states that work in service to others is “honorable” work.  It states our intention to do it “honorably, effectively, efficiently, with pride, compassion and respect”.

Next week we will release part II of this interview with Michael Mirra

One thought on “Public Housing Profile: Michael Mirra from the Tacoma Housing Authority- Part I

  1. Housing is perhaps one of the most critical
    Social determinants of health; looking forward to learning more about the programs and partnerships that help drive a whole person approach to affordable housing programs.


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