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

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: Why did you choose to work in the social housing sector?

A: I came to the Tacoma Housing Authority after spending more than twenty years practicing law with Legal Services.  In Legal Services I represented low-income people and organizations in civil matters.  My practice focused on housing topics:

  • landlord-tenant relations and eviction defense;
  • federally subsidized housing programs;
  • mortgage foreclosure defense;
  • housing discrimination;
  • zoning restrictions on special needs housing;
  • obligation of cities to provide affordable housing under the state’s Growth Management Act;
  • issues related to housing and child welfare;
  • the homelessness of children;

I left this practice and joined the Tacoma Housing Authority, initially as its general counsel.  Later I became its executive director.  I joined THA for three main reasons.  First, I wanted to learn more about the financing of affordable housing.  Second, I wanted more influence over housing policy.  Third, it was an exciting time to join THA.  It had a new and dynamic executive director and real estate development director.  Under their leadership, THA and its partners were just beginning the redevelopment of its Salishan community.  This $300 million redevelopment was ambitious.  It was ambitious in its scale and development goals.  It would demolish nearly 200 urban acres of old, ugly worn out public housing.  Not only was the housing worn out.  In addition, the infrastructure needed a total replacement: new electrical grid, new water distribution system, new sewer system, new storm water management system, new roads, new curbs, new sidewalks and new lights.  This project would build a brand new neighborhood of mixed-income housing of both homeowners and renters, and important community assets (regional clinic, elementary school, parks, community buildings) all on brand new infrastructure.  All this would be on a master plan that has since won national awards for its environmental innovation and design.  The project was the largest redevelopment in the history of the city and one of the largest in the country.  It was also ambitious in its goals of social justice.  It was a chance to understand and to show an understanding of how to do urban redevelopment at scale and in ways to further important goals of economic and racial justice.  I joined THA as this project was starting because I wanted to learn and to help.

My move from legal advocacy to THA bears another explanation.  I did not regard the move as a change of mission.  I can explain this with a metaphor on a metaphor.  The Book of Amos contemplates a day when “justice will flow like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  William Sloan Coffin, the civil rights leader, elaborated: justice may flow like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, “but someone still has to build the irrigation system.”  I think of a public housing authority as a social justice agency with the technical mission to build a system for the just distribution of housing.  That work also requires a full measure of advocacy.  In these ways, the move from legal services to THA did not cover a great distance in either mission or skills.

Q: What do you most hope to achieve in your position?

A: This is not an easy time to be a public housing authority.  We face hard and hardening markets that, on their own, remove affordable housing from a city faster than anyone can replace it.  These markets leave little room for affordable places to live for a growing population of people who need more of it and not less of it.  We face a federal government that shows a weakening commitment to this work.  Amid these challenges, my main hope is to find a way for THA to do its hard work with a long-term administrative capacity and financial stability that allows for long term planning and long term investments.

Here are two companion hopes for THA’s work:

  1. I hope to further imbed into THA’s understanding of its work the need to spend its scarce housing dollars in ways that not only house people, but that also help them succeed and help their communities develop equitably.
  2. In the face of a weakening interest in this work by the federal government, I hope that THA remains its main source of insistence that its work is important and that the people and communities it serves are valuable.


Q. What motivates you to push for the achievements you are looking for?

A: I like housing work for two reasons.  First, it has its own value.  High quality and affordable housing is essential to the people who need it.  Second, such housing is essential to almost every other civic interest:

  • job creation
  • economic development
  • growth management
  • tranportation policy
  • preservation of open spaces
  • education
  • child welfare
  • health and behavioral health
  • criminal justice and corrections
  • racial justice
  • economic justice
  • social justice
  • justice

Housing is at the intersection of all these civic discussion.  So I find it both important and engaging.

Q: Looking back at your career so far, what societal impact can you point to that means a lot to you?

A: I will mention one experience from my legal advocacy and two from my time at THA.

  • I spent 7 years in litigation representing a statewide plaintiff class of homeless families with minor children and families who need housing to prevent or shorten their children’s need for foster care. That litigation ended with a decision of the Washington State Supreme Court.  That decision established the state’s responsibility under state law when children are homeless.  It led to the state’s first substantial appropriation of funds toward this obligation.
  • At THA, the successful redevelopment of Salishan was a transforming experience for its residents, for East Tacoma, and for THA. For its residents, the project tore down nearly 200 urban acres of old, ugly and worn out public housing in favor of a new neighborhood that is just as affordable and with a mix of incomes amid homeowners and renters, all without a loss of affordable units,.  It also looks lovely.  For East Tacoma, one of Tacoma’s poorest neighborhoods, this $300 million project helped to recoup decades of public and private underinvestment.

For THA, Salishan taught THA how its real estate development work fit well inside its social justice mission.  THA learned the importance of design, the value of environmental innovation,and  the need to meaningfully consult the people affected by the plans.  THA also learned how to build in a way that strengthened our communities.  We did that by making the work accessible to firms owned by persons of color or women.  We asked our contractors to hire people for the work who live at Salishan or at our other properties, or who were other low-income residents of Tacoma.  We also asked the contractors to buy locally.  In these ways, we learned how to spend a dollar twice.  We spend it the first time for the goods and services it gets us.  We gets its value a second time, in how we spend it, to make our communities stronger.

The Salishan project also taught us about the role of race, income, language, national origin, age and ability and disability in determining the social success of the new neighborhood.  Salishan is the region’s community most diverse by those factors that in other parts of the market are segregating factors.  At Salishan they are integrating factors.  The challenge and the charm of Salishan – and the world– is to help people live across those lines.  THA has learned a lot about how to do that.

  • THA’s Education Project seeks ways to spend a housing dollar, not only to house a needy family, but also to help parents and children succeed in school and to help Tacoma schools and colleages succeed in educting or training low-income students. This project has led and is leading THA into innovative and elaborating partnerships with Tacoma Public Schools, our local communityand technical colleges and the University of Washigton at Tacoma.  When it works it is a very good use of a housing dollar.

Q: Can you give an example of a moment when you realized the work you were doing made an impact on a family, community or group of people?

A: I recall a moment at the end of the first year of our Elementary School Housing Assistance Program.  In this program we pay to house homeless families with children enrolled at elementary schools in Tacoma.  As a condition of the assistance, we ask the parents to commit to the school, to their children’s education, and to their own education and employment prospects.  THA provides close case support to help them do all that.  One of our families in the program had a little boy starting first grade.  He had never had a stable home.  At the start of the year, he was a wild guy, in the principal’s office more than anyone would wish.  His behavior demonstrated how children will show you when they do not get what they need.  The program gave his family the first stable home he had ever known.  At the end of the year, his classmates voted him Student of the Year.  He won a bicycle!  Because children will also show when they do get what they need.

Q: What advice would you give someone who would like to grow in their career and have the same job as you some day whether it be an Executive Director or advocate. (Career advice, education advice, professional organization?)

A: I advise us all to note that there are many paths to this work.  For example, I came to THA from legal advocacy.  I was not a real estate developer.  I had no finance background.  I had no experience managing property.  I had no background and certainty no clinical background in the provision of supportive services.  I had no expertise in the design or evaluation of programs.  I had little management experience.

Whatever measure of success I have had shows that there is no particular pedigree or credential that this work requires.  A reason for that arises from the charm and challenge of the work.  I mention it in answer to some previous questions.  This housing work fits at the intersection of nearly every other civic interest.  It requires a variety of skills and substantive expertise.  No one person would ever cover the entire ground.  And everyone has lived an authentic life and has something to offer.  Each person with an interest in this work should credit the value and pertience of their own gifts and experience and judge for themselves where and how they fit.

I can suggest the following more general attributes that would be valuable for an executive director of an ambitious and lively public housing authority:

  • a clear vision for the work;
  • an ability to insist on the importance of the work and the people we serve;
  • an ability to explain that vision and that importance to a wide variety of other persons (you will not be effective at this unless you believe in that vision and that importance),
  • an ability to elicit from staff an enthusiasm for that vision;
  • the ability to recognize and attract talented staff;
  • a willingness to let them do their work and to help them do it;
  • an ability to ask questions, think critically and write clearly;
  • a durable good humor.

Q: Finally; what topics would you like to see covered by Housing Futures? What are the main issues of the day that need attention in social housing?

  • A:  Two common strategies for this work are market based programs like rental assistance and place based programs like public housing. Perhaps Housing Futures can examine when and where each is appropriate.  In particular, which one is more suited to a community with a quickly rising private rental market.
  • In the United States, we see the continuing struggle to find a congenial name for subsidized housing for poor people. First we called it low-rent housing.  then we called it public housing.  Now we call it affordable housing.  More and more we call it workforce housing.  What does this search denote about the public’s regard or odium for this housing?  What would a good name be?  Does Europe have this problem?  Why or why not?  Does it show in the name?
  • From the early 20th century the United States was thoroughly segregated by race, largely on purpose and largely by affirmative governmental action or decisive governmental inaction. What role did governmental housing programs play in creating this segregation?  What role does it have in the effort to dismantle it?
  • As Europe continues to become more racially and ethnically diverse, what role does social housing play in accommodating that change, in segregating or integrating the newcomers, and in helping or delaying their transition to their new live in their new countries?
  • I would like more discussion about the value or problems with time limits on subsidized housing. What different questions arise from time limits in rental assistance programs versus public housing?
  • Should a housing provider condition housing assistance on behavior expectations for the assisted household? How would that work?
  • Should a housing provider expect to calculate the monetary value to its operations of supportive services? How would it do that?

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