Everett looks to state to help fund homelessness initiative

EVERETT — City officials are looking toward the Legislature for some much needed funding to kick-start its low-barrier housing project in 2016.

Mayor Ray Stephanson’s administration has announced plans to build or acquire 20 units of low-barrier housing for the chronically homeless in the first half of the year, preferably by this spring. It’s part of the city’s implementation of the “housing first” model, in which stable housing is provided to people without first requiring the recipient address other issues of addiction or mental illness.

Stephanson and the city have undergone a sea change in the past several years as homelessness, addiction, mental illness and street crime appeared to be rising uncontrollably, especially in the city’s downtown core.

“The last three years of looking at these social issues on our streets has been a revelation to me,” Stephanson said at a meeting of the City Council’s general government subcommittee, held Wednesday.

“I’m more and more convinced that this is one of those issues that you can’t bury your head in the sand with. It won’t go away,” he said.

Pat McClain, the city’s executive director for governmental affairs, said that working with the Legislature this year will be a challenge, as money is tight and the lawmakers have yet to come up with a plan in response to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, which requires the state to fully fund public education.

“It’s a short session. As some legislators have said, ‘We’re going to go pay some bills and leave,’” McClain said. “I think expectations have to be modest.”

Expectations within the city to get something done are already running high. For 2016 Stephanson nearly doubled the city’s budgetary outlay for various programs tied to homelessness to $2.2 million, and has indicated he will seek grant funding from various sources to help start up the housing initiative.

Stephanson also hopes to take advantage of an additional $1 million that the Snohomish County Council included in its own budget for capital projects designed to combat homelessness.

In theory, the money is available to other communities undertaking such programs, but Everett’s is the furthest along. Councilman Paul Roberts, who is also the current president of the Association of Washington Cities, said other cities are paying close attention to Everett’s progress.

“What’s happening in the city of Everett is cutting edge,” Roberts said. “I can say with pride there is no city doing more in meshing these issues.”

The city is actively seeking properties for that program, he said, although he hasn’t disclosed any details because of the sensitive nature of real estate transactions.

When it comes to the Legislature, Rep. June Robinson of Everett plans to sponsor a $2 million request in the supplemental budget during the upcoming short session to help start the housing program. Stephanson also plans to be in Olympia on Thursday to lobby for funding for that and to deal with the city’s other legislative concerns.

“We have 12 meetings set up for him already,” McClain said.

Robinson said she thinks if she can get the request into the House bill, there’s a fairly good likelihood that the request will make it through to the final version.

“There’s not a lot of capacity on the capital budget this year, so it’s going to be tight,” Robinson said.

“I’m still optimistic,” she said. “It’s such an important need, and the fact that the city has stepped up and taken a lead is critical.”

Among the city’s other priorities with the Legislature are obtaining $1.5 million in early design funding for construction work on the U.S. Highway 2 trestle, which got cut out of last year’s transportation package.

The city also plans to push for peak-hour-use shoulder lanes on I-5 between Everett and Marysville, upgrading the fields in Kasch Park, supporting Washington State University’s request to expand its agriculture degree in Everett, getting a bigger proportion of liquor profits that have been capped since 2011, and legislation to allow government to recover more costs from public records requests.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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