Planning for the Future

Assistant Professor Anaid Yerena's work on affordable housing comes at a time of rapid economic growth in Tacoma and the region.

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Anaid Yerena knows the value of having a plan. Yerena worked as an architect prior to the financial collapse in 2008. A year before the crash she enrolled in a master’s program in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of California, Irvine. The decision to go back to school stemmed from a nagging concern about the future and what would happen if she lost her job. The choice proved prudent. The firm she worked for went under: Yerena and 250 of her fellow employees were let go.

Yerena finished her master’s then completed a Ph.D. in Planning, Policy and Design at UC Irvine. “Part of the reason I became an architect is because it combined art and technical skills,” she said. “When I decided to move into planning I was looking for another way to bring these two worlds together and not just continue down the same path.”

Yerena’s life experience led her to include a third element — social policy. Though directly impacted by 2008, Yerena’s desire to address core policy issues stems from her experiences living in Mexico, Europe and the United States. Each place had a different approach to housing and helping those in need of shelter. “I started to think about where I could put those three parts of who I want to be as a professional to work,” she said. “Housing just felt like a natural home for me — pun intended.”

"Like many other great cities, Tacoma is reaching a housing affordability tipping point. According to the latest Census data, one in two renter-households and four in ten owner-households pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing," Anaid Yerena from her opinion piece in The News Tribune

In the beginning of her planning career, Yerena hoped to use her expertise to influence the design of affordable housing in the US. “For people in need of affordable housing it becomes crucial that their unit is functional and uses space efficiently so that they can both enjoy and thrive in that setting,” she said.

The more she learned about affordable housing policy in the US, the more Yerena realized she would need to take another tack. “The policies in this country are really behind,” she said. “Here affordable housing isn’t seen as an imperative, something where we all benefit.”

Yerena ultimately decided to focus her energies, including her research, on the promotion of affordable housing policies. “I think it’s important for me to highlight the work being done by advocacy groups in our communities so that their ideas are met with less resistance,” she said.

Yerena came to UW Tacoma in 2015 during an intense period of economic growth in the region, including Tacoma. Home prices in the area have been steadily climbing. As of August 2017, the median home price in Pierce County was $313,000, up ten percent from the previous year. “The data show that we’re back at pre-2008 levels in terms of housing values but income hasn’t kept up,” said Yerena.

Locally, Yerena says the focus has been on homelessness and not the creation of affordable housing. “These two are interrelated,” she added. “There’s a growing portion of the homeless population that becomes homeless because they don’t have access to affordable housing.”

The challenge of maintaining growth while keeping the city affordable is something Yerena thinks about. She believes Community Land Trusts (CLT) are a viable option for Tacoma. CLTs are created by nonprofit corporations and typically governed by community members. Homes in a CLT are made available to low-income populations and prices are deliberately kept below market rate. A number of cities in the United States, including New York and Boston, have used CLTs to provide affordable housing to residents.

Yerena believes the United States would benefit by looking at what cities around the world have done. She cites Vienna as a good example. “They have social housing, not affordable housing,” she said. “This is housing with a social mission that is good for all of society and not just the recipient of the benefit.”

In places like Vienna, access to affordable housing is seen as a right. “People don’t have to depend on their salary staying super low to continue staying in that unit, as is the case in this country,” said Yerena. This idea, that housing is for everyone, is a central part of Yerena’s thinking. “The safety net in this country is contingent upon your dire need of it,” she said. “You have to wait until you’re drowning before government will throw you a life preserver.”

Yerena wants her students to avoid such scenarios. She teaches a range of classes within the field of Urban Studies including a course about housing policy in the United States. “Students won’t become housing experts in ten weeks,” said Yerena. “I hope they come away feeling empowered with the knowledge they need to become advocates for themselves.”

Exposing students to these ideas provides them with critical insight. “We get really good at buying groceries because we do it all the time,” said Yerena. “Participating in the housing market is something we don’t do regularly, so our ability to learn from the experience is limited.”

Anaid Yerena has channeled her knowledge of architecture and planning into the classroom.  She’s preparing students for a life outside of the university.  In other words, she’s helping them create a plan. 

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / December 6, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu