Housing activists in Washington took over a vacant building to fight for housing justice

A group of housing activists in Washington holding a large poster in front of a vacant building
Tacoma Housing Now activists outside Gault Middle School. [Facebook/Tacoma Housing Now]

A collective of housing justice activists based in Tacoma, Washington, known as Tacoma Housing Now led a direct action last week to occupy an abandoned middle school. The group of about a dozen activists and unhoused locals entered the building and set up a camp inside with the purpose of securing immediate, safe housing. Between the coronavirus pandemic’s rapidly rising threat and the freezing winter temperatures, the group decided to enter the building, which has been vacant since 2009. According to reporting by The News Tribune, a Tacoma-based newspaper, the group quickly started working to clean up the run-down building’s interior and had portable toilets delivered.

A Tacoma Public Schools spokesperson told local station KIRO7 that the building had been declared uninhabitable because of the presence of mold and asbestos in the structure. Earlier this year, the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) was in talks with Tacoma Public Schools to purchase the 7.3-acre property — which includes six buildings, a swimming pools, and an open field. The THA originally planned to build mixed housing with a community space that could be rented for events, but they backed out of the deal amid COVID-19-related budgetary concerns.

Still, the building has been sitting vacant for 11 years, and Tacoma Housing Now insists, “This is an emergency, and we don’t have another 11 years for empty talk.” In a press release from Tacoma Housing Now, the group shared that two unhoused individuals died from exposure in the week leading up to Friday’s move into the empty school building. The group’s main focus is to push the city of Tacoma and the Tacoma Public Schools System to transfer the property into a community land trust that can be used to create safe and affordable housing for the city’s unhoused population.

According to the press release, Tacoma Housing Now supports “direct action to end [Tacoma’s] housing crisis and get everyone housed. We fight against real estate developers and their politicians, sweeps, the police, bureaucratic delays, and empty talk — and any obstacle that stands in the way of housing for all.”

On Friday afternoon, police arrived to remove the group. According to KOMO News, police tried to convince the collective to leave and after several hours of talks, officers entered the building and told residents they could either leave voluntarily or they’d be charged with burglary. The group left the property, but has continued their fight, leading a caravan protest to Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards's house on Monday evening, according to the group’s Facebook page.