Cities get a say in group housing for ex-inmates

Cities concerned by a proliferation of group homes for ex-inmates are getting a say in where new ones open if taxpayer dollars pay the rent for some of the tenants.

Under a new law, when the Department of Corrections prepares to approve a new provider of housing for ex-inmates eligible for rental aid, it must inform leaders of the community in which it will operate. Those leaders can then make their case to the department on why the location may not be a good fit for the neighborhood.

The law also bars two or more inmates who receive rental vouchers from sharing a room or living under the same roof unless the provider of the housing is approved by the state Department of Corrections.

These are welcome changes in Marysville, where this issue erupted at the City Council last year and spurred the mayor and council members to lobby hard for the law signed last week by Gov. Jay Inslee.

But it came with a price: the longtime residents who brought the matter to the council moved out rather than continue living next door to a house filled with registered sex offenders as renters.

“We lost a good family because of this,” said Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring as he stood outside the governor’s office moments before the signing. “We accept that every community will have their share of registered sex offenders. It is unfair for a house to have eight or 10. That’s too much to ask of any neighborhood in any city anywhere.”

Yet that’s what Michelle and Brian Morck learned about their neighbors last June when a state community corrections officer came by to let them know a Level 3 sex offender was moving into the abode next door.

After a little more research, they found out several registered sex offenders rented rooms in the large home the couple described as a “flop house.”

The Morcks, who had lived in the city for 22 years, moved to Seattle. They, too, attended the bill signing.

“We feel like we sacrificed ourselves so it will help others,” Brian Morck said. “There are facilities that are safe havens, places where they have regulated services for them. This did not have any of that. It was absolutely a very scary situation.”

Michelle Morck said after the bill signing, “I think it’s bittersweet. Hopefully it no longer gives individuals a free pass to operate a flop house any time, anywhere.”

The new law deals with the rental voucher program launched July 1, 2009, as a means of cutting state spending on incarceration by reducing the number of prison inmates. It aims to help those who are eligible for release but remain behind bars because they cannot find housing they can afford.

These convicted criminals can receive up to $500 a month for three months with the voucher payment being made directly to the provider of housing. The state has made 9,181 such payments on behalf 3,950 offenders since the program started, according to the Department of Corrections.

Right now, the department keeps a list of approved housing providers for ex-inmates. This law makes clear if more than two voucher recipients are going to be in the same dwelling, the provider must be on the list. It also says if the group home has between four and eight beds, or more if local codes allow it, the corrections department must be able to verify the ex-inmates are participating in services or programs to transition back into the community.

What this law will also do is let cities, towns and counties request a provider be removed from the list at any time if an inspection reveals the residence does not comply with state and local building codes or zoning regulations.

And when the department settles on a location for a new group home, local government can send in a “community impact statement” laying out reasons why the neighborhood is not a good fit.

Today, there are 19 vendors operating 54 group homes for ex-inmates in Snohomish County, according to the state.

Among them are four in Marysville and three in Arlington run by Arlington pastor John Mack of Holy Ghost Revival Ministries. The number of renters in each home differs with as few as five and as many 12, most of whom are registered sex offenders, Mack said.

One of those homes is next to the Morck’s former residence. Mack said the law won’t affect that one because no one living there receives state vouchers.

“The city of Marysville did all this for nothing,” he said. “My concern is that the mayor and City Council goes to all this hassle to try to regulate the Mack House rather than come to me personally to work out their differences.”

Mack said he has one home in Arlington that accepts vouchers for released inmates and could fall under the provisions of the new law. But, he said, he could move guys to other homes to avoid triggering the rules.

Marysville leaders are confident the law will give them more tools to keep watch on operations like Mack’s.

Councilman Michael Stevens built a new home and his family lived in it six months before learning one of Mack’s houses operated across the alley. Now the husband and father of four isn’t feeling quite the same about the neighborhood even though there’s been no reported incidents involving the ex-inmates living there.

“You lose some of the innocence of the safety of your back yard when something like this happens,” he said. “The reality is the state has a system that says these individuals have done their time and we cannot dictate where they live.

“With this we have a chance to have oversight by the city to make sure it’s a clean operation,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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