School board, nonprofit plan housing for homeless students

The Everett district and Housing Hope have a plan for a surplus 3-acre plot in Port Gardner.

EVERETT — Where a grade school stood long ago, housing for homeless students and their families could rise.

The Everett School Board has declared as surplus a nearly 3-acre plot in the 3600 block of Norton Avenue, in the Port Gardner neighborhood. It also has agreed to lease the land to a nonprofit for 75 years.

The deal with Housing Hope calls for building an affordable housing apartment complex that would serve homeless students and their families. It borders Sequoia High, an alternative school. The development, as now proposed, would provide an estimated 34 low- to moderate-income units.

An early childhood center, as large as 10,000 square feet, also is part of the plan.

The school board approved the lease in a unanimous vote last week.

The decision came as news to many living in the neighborhood, sparking concern, according to social media posts. Some wondered why they hadn’t heard about the proposal and if existing buildings downtown couldn’t be used instead.

Fred Safstrom, chief executive officer for Housing Hope, said his agency plans to work with the neighborhood, city historical commission, planning department and others as it pursues the project.

Safstrom, who attended South Junior High School long before it became Sequoia, once played Little League and had gym classes on the land that would be turned into housing. He said he understands neighbors will have concerns.

“Frankly if I were in the same shoes and I were making a choice in the neighborhood, ‘Do I want an open field or apartments?’ I would probably choose an open field. That’s not a surprise,” he said. “The question is this is publicly owned land that the school district has a responsibility to use for productive use for the education of students in our district. … They have a tremendous need to house students in the district that have fallen into homelessness.”

During the 2009-10 school year, the district identified 510 homeless enrolled students. At the close of last year, that number was 1,255. At the same time, there were 290 students considered homeless living within Everett’s boundaries who were attending schools in other districts.

“The project is aimed directly at improving the graduation rates of homeless students living in the district and served in district schools,” according to a recent district memo.

The site was once home to the original Jackson School, which was built in 1902 at a cost of $30,000, according to Larry O’Donnell’s book chronicling the first 100 years of the Everett School District. The two-story wood building was torn down in the 1950s.

“Now is the time we enter into the public process,” Safstrom said. “The public has a say and a voice in this land use action. We are prepared to engage the neighborhood in that discussion. I don’t think we will change everyone’s minds but we will have a very open ear.”

With permits and financing to secure, the construction likely wouldn’t be finished until 2022, at the earliest.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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