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Editorial: Compromise respects housing needs and neighbors

Last week’s vote by the Everett City Council could have benefits beyond a project serving homeless students.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Even if ultimately built, the estimated 34 to 50 units of housing intended for the families of homeless students and proposed for a vacant field in the Port Gardner neighborhood will satisfy a relatively small number of the more than a 1,000 Everett School District students who are homeless or in unstable housing situations.

And that’s in addition to the more than 1,100 homeless individuals counted throughout the county early this year during the annual Point-in-Time count.

So, it might seem that a decision by the Everett City Council last week as to whether to keep a provision that allows multi-family supportive housing in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes would be of no great consequence one way or the other.

But that tally of numbers looks past the difference that supportive housing — that intended to provide affordable homes and services for those in the city dealing with homelessness, poverty, addiction or mental illness — has already begun to make in the lives of individuals through such housing managed by Cocoon House, Housing Hope and Catholic Community Services.

Some of those victories were testified to at Wednesday night’s city council meeting with more than two and a half hours of comments from more than 50 people, some of them current or former clients of the agencies noted above and others who had experienced homelessness during childhood.

Among them, Everett resident Michelle Pendergrass, who spoke haltingly before a packed council room; “I never tell anyone this,” she said as she began.

Homeless between the ages of 16 and 21, Pendergrass said she dropped out of high school but later attained her GED and graduated from nursing school and now works as a registered nurse in Everett.

“If only something like this had been available, I wouldn’t have this shame I’m walking around with today,” she said.

At the same time, concerns can’t be disregarded that were raised that evening and at earlier meetings by residents of the Port Gardner neighborhood for increased traffic and density, the potential loss of an unofficial park and for the character and enjoyment of their neighborhood.

The Everett City Council found a compromise Wednesday that should address the concerns of neighbors while retaining a tool that can allow such supportive housing as proposed by Housing Hope.

The housing agency has arranged a 75-year lease with the Everett School District for a three-acre parcel of land that has come to be known as the Norton Playfield. As initially proposed, the development sought to develop low- and moderate-income housing that will be prioritized for homeless students and their families. Homeless students enrolled at nearby Sequoia High School — some of them with children of their own — would have priority for housing.

The project sought consideration by the city under an ordinance the council passed in 2016 to facilitate the construction of what is now known as Clare’s Place, 65 units of housing on Berkshire Drive for homeless individuals and managed by Catholic Community Services. That ordinance allowed for a more streamlined process for multi-family supportive housing in zones for single-family homes.

But Housing Hope’s proposal triggered concerns for notification and other issues among neighborhood residents and city officials. A six-month moratorium was put in place to review the ordinance, with the city’s planning commission recently recommending such developments be removed as a permitted use in single-family zones.

Instead, by a 5-1 vote, the council agreed to a compromise that will allow those projects but require greater notification and engagement of affected residents and more review of a project’s design elements for issues including building height, open space, setbacks, walking distance to transit routes and parking.

That’s a compromise that works for Housing Hope, its chief executive Fred Safstrom said prior to the council’s vote, referring to an engagement process it has begun with Port Gardner residents.

There may be only limited opportunities where the amended ordinance can be employed. Housing agencies typically have to rely on lease or sale of public lands that have been declared surplus for the developments to fit within an agency’s resources. Including the school district field, there are four such properties within single-family neighborhoods.

Yet, considering the growing need for housing in Everett and throughout Snohomish County — not just for homeless families and individuals but for all — every opportunity for development of a range of housing options will need to be pursued by social service agencies, private developers and local governments. And those opportunities are now being reviewed by the city and its relevant commissions as it continues a broader review of housing needs and zoning issues.

Those housing options, including those with a mix of residential, commercial and retail development adjacent to transit facilities, offer opportunities for a revitalization of neighborhoods and commercial areas. One such development has been suggested for the former Kmart shopping center on Evergreen Way in south Everett.

Over past decades, the trend in zoning had been to segregate residential neighborhoods miles away from the areas were we shop and work, taking more of us off sidewalks and into motor vehicles, increasing traffic and pollution. Planning efforts, such as the city accomplished this year with its Metro Everett plan, seek to use development standards to offer a livable mix of those uses and now offers a blueprint for further discussions.

The Everett council and past and current city officials, through the city’s Streets Initiative, have helped advance efforts that are seeing success in delivering stable housing, recovery and mental health services. But larger issues of affordable housing, transportation, livable neighborhoods, jobs and a strong local economy also need further discussion.

Those remedies, however, have to come with the engagement and participation of the city’s residents if they are to find acceptance. The council’s compromise offers a good template for that approach.

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