Tacoma Neighborhoods: Salishan Housing Project -- Tacoma Housing Authority

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 8/23/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5512

Tacoma's Salishan Housing Project rose in 1943 as part of the industrial miracle that won World War II for the Allies. After the war, the project served first veterans and military families, then low-income families and immigrants. Crime plagued the community over the years, but residents organized to make their neighborhood a better place. After 60 years, Salishan will be replaced by a new mixed-use development that will still serve low-income families, as well as homeowners and market-rate renters.

During the Great Depression (1929-1939) substandard housing for Americans impeded economic recovery. In 1937, Congress passed the United States Housing Act which provided for the creation of local public housing authorities to provide "decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families" (42 USC 1437) and to replace slums using Federal funds. The construction of the new housing provided employment and spurred the moribund construction industry.

On August 16, 1940, the Tacoma City Council created the Tacoma Housing Authority to implement the Housing Act, but a year later, the five-member board determined that there was no need in Tacoma for low-rent housing. The Housing Authority commissioners did recommend construction of housing for military personnel and war workers. By the summer of 1941, the U.S. was building up its defenses in anticipation of World War II. Thousands were already moving into Tacoma to work at McChord Field, the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot, Fort Lewis, and in Commencement Bay shipyards. Rents skyrocketed as workers and military families arrived in the area.

In May 1942, the Tacoma Housing Authority accepted the Public Housing Administration commission to build 2,000 units for war workers. The planners looked for a location south of Commencement Bay in order to shift commute traffic away from the 11th Street Bridge and downtown. The first site chosen was on a hill above the Hylebos Waterway, but a property on Portland Avenue already served by utilities promised to be $120,000 cheaper to construct. Pierce County and approximately 30 private land owners sold to the government 465 acres east of Portland Avenue at 40th Street .

A New Neighborhood

A team of Tacoma architects drew up plans for a community of 2,000 homes spaced out along curvilinear streets. Government rules limited the cost of each unit to $3,750, so in addition to detached single-family units, there were buildings with two or three units each. To save money, buildings were laid out eight or ten per acre instead of the six per acre in earlier plans. By leaving spaces between homes open and by taking advantage of the natural contours of the land, planners created a community feel and avoided the expense of six bridges. The planners believed that sloppy living conditions ultimately reflected in the quality of work by residents. Tacoma City Light cooperated by designing a power supply system where poles were at the rear of properties. An attractive and well-groomed housing development would help increase production and contribute to victory. Also, the National Housing Agency wanted to give workers the option of remaining in the community once the war was over.

Two other projects went up in Tacoma at the time, Lincoln Heights (400 units) and American Lake Gardens (464 units). The Tacoma Housing Authority also acquired dormitory space for single workers in Ruston, at the Lux Hotel, and in American Lake Gardens. Salishan, a generic name for tribes in the Puget Sound region, was chosen for the Portland Avenue project

All the lumber for the homes at Salishan came from trees cut from the property, but as with nearly every wartime effort, Salishan encountered problems of coordination and supply. Bathtubs for every one of the units arrived before construction even commenced. The sewer system was late in going in which delayed progress. The U.S. Navy became concerned enough about the delays, which impacted the delivery of new ships, that the Naval Intelligence Service showed interest in the slow progress. When the sewer system problem was resolved, the supply of interior pipe did not arrive. A record snow storm stopped work for a while.

People Move In

The first 10 residents moved in on May 1, 1943, and within three months, more than 600 families had unpacked. When the "federal city within a city" was dedicated on February 20, 1944, Tacoma mayor Earl Riley noted that it was nearly the size of nearby Puyallup (Adams, 7).  In May 1944, the pressure of the housing crunch lifted and 800 Salishan empty units awaited renters.

Wartime restrictions on materials dictated that wiring for electricity be limited to low-wattage lighting circuits and no individual telephones. Residents lined up at telephone booths in all weathers to make their calls. The unlit booths made reading a telephone directory at night problematic. Only those homes on the edge of the project, near the telephone cable, got phone service -- if a cable pair was available. Coal provided heat for warmth, hot water, and cooking.

Most kitchens had ice boxes, not refrigerators, and the new resident guide Short Cuts warned that "none of the best steel went into these, so it's wise to shut the door gently." To save more time and money, some units lacked concrete foundations and 400 homes consisting of canvas stretched over wood frames went up at the south end of the project. Low quality paint made surfaces hard to clean and bedroom closets had curtains instead of doors. 

The Tacoma Housing Authority provided maintenance free of charge, and supplied paint, soap, and floor wax to residents who wanted to improve their units. The Short Cuts handbook included project rules, instructions for operating the coal furnaces, and some background on the new community. More than half the residents worked in the shipyards, but despite the wartime economic boom, 12 percent of the families at Salishan lived at least partially on public assistance.

The influx of families with children strained the Tacoma school system. By December 1944, the new Salishan School was at 200 percent capacity. With no funds for new facilities, the school district used double sessions and surplus buildings to alleviate the space shortage. Since Salishan was a government project, it did not pay the property taxes that supported city and county services. In lieu of taxes, the Tacoma Housing Authority paid 10 percent of rents to the City, the County, the Port District, and the School District.

A community center provided a place for clubs to gather, for matinees and movie nights, and for religious services. A Baptist congregation built a small chapel across Portland Avenue from the main entrance to the project.


The war ended, but the need for housing did not. Returning veterans wanted homes for their new families and the demand for housing at Salishan actually increased after VJ Day. Federal legislation was amended to extend the life of the temporary wartime projects. Veterans and military personnel who met certain income requirements moved in. Military personnel in the lowest pay grades did not receive housing or allowances for families and were in particular need of Salishan's services.

Despite planners' efforts to make Salishan a community, the project soon acquired a reputation for crime. In June 1947, Tacoma News Tribune columnist Bill McMurtrie reported "outrages" against women bus riders by "the lawless element that has given the project a reputation no other section of Tacoma has ever had." Some bus drivers refused to go near Salishan and plainclothes officers rode buses at night. This was a heavy accusation in a city whose downtown area was declared off limits by the commander at Fort Lewis.

McMurtrie's column elicited responses that both agreed with his assessment and pointed out the valuable work of the Salishan Resident Council, the cleanup and homes beautiful contest, and youth and cultural activities.

In 1949, the Boy Scouts of America sought to organize racially segregated troops in Salishan and the proposal was put to a vote of residents. African American residents nixed the idea of segregated troops so the Scouts established the first integrated troop in the Tacoma district. Although Salishan accepted tenants of all races, managers tended to direct African American renters into a single portion of the project. An article in the Sunday News Tribune lauded the Salishan community as a "lesson in enterprise and thinking" with tap dancing sessions, Sunday school, movie matinees, a health clinic, and an active resident council. The home beautiful contest offered cash prizes to residents who spruced up their homes with landscaping and flowers.


By 1950, 6,700 people lived in Salishan, 3,500 of them children. The average income was less than $1,900 a year. The federal laws that created Salishan and the other projects required that the projects either be sold off to private parties or converted to housing for low-income families. The Army took over American Lake Gardens and then sold it. The Tacoma Housing Authority wanted to convert Lincoln Heights and Salishan to low-income housing.

The Tacoma Real Estate Board and other groups opposed conversion on a number of grounds including the impact that the housing projects would have on surrounding property values, lack of need (half of Salishan's units were vacant), and because the properties would not generate tax revenues. The Real Estate Board took the lead in fighting conversion and tried to have the issue put to popular vote. The Housing Authority relented and Lincoln Heights was released for sale to private parties. Tacoma City Council voted on May 24, 1951, to convert 900 Salishan units to low-income housing and to demolish the rest.

In 1955, one third of Salishan's residents were people of color. Integrated housing was reported in the News Tribune as "experimental." Non-discrimination in housing was long a feature in the Tacoma Housing Authority's policies. In the ensuing decades, Salishan showcased the waves of immigrants that landed in Tacoma. But the legacy of crime plagued residents through the years.

Down and Up

The year 1991 may have been the nadir in the fortunes of the community. Drug trafficking and drive-by gang shootings marred an already poor reputation for public safety. Community Center Director Michael Bradley recalled, "At that time they were considering boarding it up.  There were no kids there. There were older young adults and a lot of pimps and prostitutes. That was their hangout" (News Tribune).  That year the Tacoma Housing Authority received a federal grant to reduce crime. The Housing Authority tightened up the screening of new tenants, aggressively enforced eviction policies, and added police and private security.

Crimes dropped from four homicides in 1990 to none in 1996, and from 331 violent crimes in 1990 -- almost one a day -- to 173 in 1996. As crime fell, more people used community programs such as youth groups, Cambodian language school, and African American Drumming.

In 1993, a garden fair, reminiscent of the home beautiful contest of 50 years before, drew residents together in what became an annual community event. As News Tribune reporter Kathleen Merryman described it: "Saturday in Salishan, Ukrainian women sang, Cambodian teens taught a rainbow of friends a line dance, kids painted pots, women made elegantly silly hats out of newspapers, and everyone with a winning ticket went home with a sturdy verbena, dahlia or petunia."

In 1996, the Washington State University Cooperative Extension program opened Salishan Learning Center. Students earned credits towards a bachelor's degree and took a variety of courses such as basic computer skills.

New Salishan

It was with some trepidation that the community greeted plans to completely demolish Salishan. On April 27, 2001, THA received a $35 million HOPE VI grant to revitalize Salishan. Combined with other public and private funding sources, the $200 million redevelopment of Salishan will replace existing homes with new homes, a combination of rental and owner-occupied structures. The new community will also feature a new health and dental clinic, a new education/technology center, and an expanded childcare facility.


Loelle Adams, "Historic American Building Survey: Salishan Housing District, Tacoma," (HABS No. WA-219); Newsclipping files, 1941-1956, Tacoma Housing Authority; Kathleen Merryman, "The Comeback Community," The News Tribune (Tacoma), April 6, 1997, p. A-1; "Salishan's Rosy Future A Reason For Celebration," Ibid., June 4, 2002, p. B-6; Kathleen Merryman, "Changing Housing Easier Than Changing Lives At Salishan," Ibid., May 20, 2002, p. B-1; "New Salishan Grant Cause for Celebration," Ibid., July 28, 2000, B-6.

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