On a night when the Everett City Council confronted two looming crises, it committed itself to investigating actions that can address one but discarded a proven tool to help alleviate the other.
On its agenda Wednesday were action items regarding the city’s responses to climate change and the crisis over homelessness and affordable housing.
The council adopted resolutions declaring a climate crisis and adopting a climate action plan, taking a leadership role among local governments in Snohomish County that can begin to outline the efforts necessary to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for the effects of climate change that cannot be avoided but can still be limited. The council’s actions correctly recognized the peril facing the community and the globe and showed its resolve to take steps to confront a real danger.
It’s action Wednesday to step back from a successful process that can help alleviate homelessness was less courageous.
The council voted against further use of a process it developed a few years ago — among the early steps in its Safe Streets Initiative to address homelessness — which fostered the work to build Clare’s Place, 65 units of permanent housing now operated by Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services that connect formerly homeless residents with the supportive services and treatment they need.
Sited on land declared surplus by the city, the project’s approval was aided by a 2016 ordinance that allowed review and consideration by a hearing examiner of multi-family supportive housing projects within the city’s single-family residential zones. The decision, and delayed notice to neighborhood residents, caused some controversy, but the complex in the Glacier View neighborhood has been successfully operating since August, one of three such supportive housing projects — including Cocoon House’s Hub and HopeWorks Station — that last year added 170 units of supportive housing in Everett.
Housing Hope, the 32-year-old housing program for low-income families and the homeless with developments throughout the county — had hoped to use the same tool to build 34 or more units of low-income housing, specifically for the city’s homeless students and their families. The multi-family complex — on three acres of surplus Everett School District property at Norton Avenue and 36th Street in the Port Gardner neighborhood — would be located about a block from the district’s alternative Sequoia High School, homeless students from which would have first priority for residence.
Objections from Port Gardner residents, however, resulted in the council’s declaration in June of a moratorium on such projects and a review of the 2016 ordinance. In December, following public hearings with testimony from neighborhood residents and those backing supportive housing agencies, the council appeared to lean toward finding a solution that kept multi-family supportive housing as a permitted use in single-family neighborhoods. Instead, the council voted 4-1 Wednesday to reverse the 2016 ordinance and remove multi-family supportive housing as a permitted use in R-1 zones.
Fred Safstrom, Housing Hope’s chief executive, said Thursday morning that the agency will now move forward with its plans by seeking a rezone of most of the property, a costlier and lengthier process that puts its review before the city’s planning commission and, finally, before the city council, rather than before a hearing examiner.
Actually, Safstrom said, Housing Hope — regardless of Wednesday’s decision — had already decided to move forward using the rezone process, and has assembled a design committee that includes Port Gardner residents — some supportive, some skeptical — ahead of the project’s review. Among plans for the project that seek to make it more compatible with the neighborhood: Housing Hope will not seek a rezone of those portions of the property that face Norton Avenue, keeping to existing zoning standards, Safstrom said.
While the Housing Hope project is still moving forward in its review, the council’s decision could mean fewer opportunities for such projects in the future.
The original ordinance was crafted to take advantage of situations where publicly owned land, such as that in the hands of the city or the school district, could be declared surplus and effectively donated to a housing or social service agency for the public purpose of relieving homelessness. Such arrangements are vital to keep down the costs of housing projects and maximize the number of people they serve. The more an agency has to spend on property, the less it can do to provide housing.
The language of the ordinance passed Wednesday attempts to play down that significance, stating that the change would reduce the potential for supportive housing in Everett by up to four sites, and that “the reduction will not result in a lack of opportunities to establish supportive housing in Everett.”
But it does mean fewer opportunities.
Situations and the plans of local government change over the years, meaning there could be more than four sites in single-family zones in the future where such projects could be considered. These projects, of course, remain permitted uses in zones that allow multi-family developments. But consider the need: Snohomish County’s most-recent Point in Time count, taken this month, has not been released, but the 2019 count documented more than 1,100 homeless individuals in the county. The Everett School District has counted between 1,000 and 1,200 of its students as homeless or living in unstable situations, such as in motels or couch-surfing with friends’ families.
Every opportunity to address homelessness must be kept available and open for consideration.
The rezoning process does allow for that consideration but — with rezoning decisions left to the planning commission and ultimately the city council — it remains a political process, one that can be swayed by public pressure, as demonstrated by the council’s apparent back-and-forth about how to proceed during this review.
This is not to claim that those on the council aren’t committed to resolving homelessness and don’t recognize the possibilities that supportive housing provide. We believe, as do many within the region’s housing and social service agencies, that they are supportive.
It’s encouraging, for example, that the city and the council are taking a broader look at issues of zoning with the Rethink Zoning process, which over the rest of the year will consider consolidating the city’s existing 31 development zones down to 12 and update the city zoning map to reflect how uses in areas of the city have changed over the years. The goal is to support efforts to recruit new employers to the city while offering housing options for the full range of family incomes.
There’s hope that process might develop further opportunities to resolve homelessness.
In a time of crisis, however, it’s discouraging to see one less tool in the city’s toolbox.