Editorial: Low-barrier housing project can be good neighbor

By The Herald Editorial Board

The city of Everett is nearing the final steps in the land-use review of a proposal to build a 70-unit apartment building that will provide “supportive housing” for some of the city’s chronically homeless.

But there’s work ahead for it and its partners in the project — Catholic Housing Services and Catholic Community Services — to address the concerns of the project’s neighbors, work that will continue long after the first residents move in.

The city, having selected the Western Washington-based service agency as its developer, has proposed building the complex on city-owned land on Berkshire Drive, a half-block west of Evergreen Way. About 1.2 acres of the city’s 22 acres, where a water reservoir and fire training facility are located, would be subdivided and transferred to Catholic Housing Services.

Hearing examiner James Driscoll heard testimony Thursday night from city officials, Catholic Housing Services staff and residents from the Glacier View and Pinehurst/Beverly Park neighborhoods before about 30 people in the Weyerhaeuser Room of Everett Station. Driscoll is expected to issue a ruling by June 7 on whether the city can subdivide the property and whether Catholic Housing Services will be granted a special-use permit for the development.

From the start of the process a year ago, neighbors have faulted the city’s process for not including residents sooner in discussions and also raised concerns about the effects on the surrounding neighborhood by providing housing for chronically homeless people who often struggle with alcoholism, addictions or mental illness.

Much of that was repeated Thursday night, specifically by neighborhood resident Aaron Powell, who said the residential neighborhood, following decline during the recession, has recently started to rebound. Powell gathered the signatures of 139 neighbors on a letter submitted as public comment in March, opposing the project.

“It’s not just a fear of change, it’s the knowledge that drugs will be introduced into our small neighborhood,” Powell said, as reported by The Herald’s Chris Winters.

City elected officials, including Mayor Ray Stephanson, have acknowledged they could have done a better job of introducing the project to residents and the public, but have defended the selection of the Berkshire Drive site as the best location because necessary services, including bus lines and retail shops and restaurants are a short walk away.

And as many residents and business owners testified Thursday night and throughout the process, the area, like much of the city, already is experiencing problems with drug activity and homelessness. The proposal will not introduce problems that are not already present, problems that the city is addressing through this and other proposals of its Safe Streets Initiative.

It will require a level of trust of city government and service agencies, but the proposed supportive housing complex — also referred to as low-barrier and housing-first — offers a solution to remove the chronically homeless from the streets and begin to address homelessness and its related problems in the immediate area and throughout the city.

Neighborhood residents should take seriously the assurances of Catholic Community Services and its sister housing agency, that the facility, like others it operates in Seattle, Lynnwood, Bellingham and Tacoma, will be a good neighbor.

The complex, with a mix of studio and one-bedroom apartments, will provide homes for about 40 people with disabilities (many who use service animals), 15 others with chronic mental illnesses and 10 young adults, 18 to 24 years old, who will be served by programs through Cocoon House. At least two agency staff will monitor the complex around the clock, seven days a week. And office space will be provided for counselors and other service providers.

The apartment complex will also include landscaping and new plantings that will clear out trees and bushes that have been used to conceal small encampments on the hillside above Evergreen Way.

Tenants will be screened and excluded for any history of drug manufacturing offenses, sexual offenses or violent crimes and will be expected to abide by a “good neighbor” policy with rules regarding noise, littering, sale or purchase of drugs and unauthorized guests. Residents that violate the rules, following 10- to 30-day review periods, can and have been expelled, explained Will Rice, a vice president with Catholic Community Services.

What supportive housing does is provide stability for people and allow residents to begin steps toward personal goals of health, employment and becoming part of the community.

Even if some residents relapse or never achieve sobriety, the housing reduces the harm for the individual and also reduces the costs of emergency response and medical treatment for the community. Rice said that Bellingham Police Department tracked its eight heaviest users of public services and found that after placement in Bellingham’s Francis Place, emergency calls and treatment for those individuals fell by 75 percent.

The neighbors’ unfamiliarity and uncertainty regarding supportive housing is understandable — Rice said they have had to confront those concerns in other communities — but it has been shown to be successful elsewhere, and the city and the agencies have a high interest in the Everett project’s success. Catholic Housing Services has a track record to protect, and the city, if it hopes to foster similar projects elsewhere, needs to show that it can help neighborhoods adjust and will listen and respond to residents’ concerns.

Some of that can be accomplished as the city begins a conversation with residents and business owners about more general improvements and redevelopment of a stretch of Evergreen Way between 50th Street SE and Madison Street.

Not undertaking innovative programs such as supportive housing will only leave people on the streets with little hope for treatment.

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