In the five years since the task force leading Everett’s Community Streets Initiative presented its final report to the Everett City Council, many of the recommendations that effort produced have been adopted and put to work, with measurable improvements regarding the issues of homelessness and housing insecurity, poverty, mental illness and addiction. With more left to do, of course.
But a proposed change regarding one of those efforts now threatens to restrict further opportunities to help the homeless, including the most vulnerable among that population: children.
Among the Safe Streets recommendations was a change to city zoning rules that sought to increase the opportunity for the construction of what is known as “housing first,” “low-barrier” or “supportive housing.” The city took the lead in that effort in 2016 by locating and surplussing city property and working with social service agencies — Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services — to build and operate 65 units of permanent housing that connect residents with the supportive services and treatment they need.
The initial effort wasn’t without missteps on the city’s part. After the approval process had started, then-Mayor Ray Stephenson and others admitted more should have been done to notify and work with the neighbors surrounding the Berkshire Drive project. Yet Clare’s Place was built and opened to its first residents this August, one of three supportive housing projects that have added a total of about 170 units this year, with similar projects still to come.
It was that concern regarding the public process that was behind a six-month moratorium adopted by the city council on such supportive housing projects proposed in the city’s single-family zoned neighborhoods. The moratorium suspended further consideration of a proposal by Housing Hope — the 32-year-old housing program for low-income families and the homeless with developments throughout the county — to build about 34 units of low-income housing, specifically for the city’s homeless students and their families.
Contingent on the city’s approval, the Everett School District had agreed to a 75-year lease of about three acres of vacant property — now used as an unofficial neighborhood park — at Norton Avenue and 36th Street in the Port Gardner neighborhood. The project is located within walking distance of the district’s Sequoia High School and students there would be given priority for housing.
Homelessness among the city’s school children is less visible yet alarming; the Everett School District counts more than 1,250 of its students as homeless, living on the street, in shelters, in vehicles, motels or staying with family or friends. The outcomes of students’ housing insecurity have shown to be far lower rates of attendance, test scores, scholastic achievement and graduation as compared with their peers.
When the Everett City Council put the moratorium in place in June it asked the city’s planning commission to review issues related to the siting of supportive housing in single-family zones. While the planning commission’s review, which included workshops and a public hearing, considered most of the issues for which the council sought review — including public notice and the approval process, parking requirements, sidewalks and pedestrian safety and building height and density — the planning commission’s recommendation was to remove the possibility of supportive housing from single-family zones all together.
The City Council will now consider that recommendation — amended by city staff to assure compliance with state and federal fair housing rules — at its Dec. 4 meeting. The council should reject the planning commission’s recommendation and either send the matter back to the commission or work with city staff to draft an ordinance that makes the changes that address the issues outlined when the moratorium was adopted.
The action recommended by the commission, while it will meet with approval by many in the Port Gardner neighborhood, exceeds what is necessary for the fair and public consideration of projects such as that proposed by Housing Hope and fostered by the school district in the interests of its students.
The opportunities for such projects already are limited. City staff informed the council that there are four locations within single-family zones in the city where publicly owned land could be used for such projects. Development of these projects often is dependent on the property being made at little to no cost to the agency building and managing the project, as was the case with Clare’s Place.
Specific to Housing Hope’s plans for the Norton Avenue property, there are reasons why the project deserves consideration, beyond the need and its location near Sequoia, just as neighborhood residents should be granted the review and remedies regarding their concerns.
But removing such developments from any future consideration prejudges the outcome before a project can even be proposed. And it pretends that multi-family housing in the city hasn’t for decades been compatible next to — and often within — single-family neighborhoods in the city.
City officials’ good intentions got ahead of what should have been a more careful public process in approving Clare’s Place, but preventing similar missteps shouldn’t now come at the cost of limiting the opportunities to use a tool such as supportive housing. And it shouldn’t prevent the fair consideration of a project that can be compatible and an asset to the neighborhood, one that provides more kids with a better chance at graduation and future success.