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Editorial: Use 6-month review to strengthen housing efforts

An Everett review that has put a Housing Hope project on hold needs the public’s participation.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Even as Everett welcomes three supportive housing projects this year that will provide about 170 residences and wrap-around services for the city’s homeless population, the Everett City Council took action last week that has suspended for at least six months the review process for a recent proposal to serve homeless school children and their families in the city, even before its consideration could begin.

Council members during Wednesday night’s discussion and vote were clear they continued to support efforts to see such housing built — and for the goals of the project in question — but were taking action to evaluate what some see as a loophole that could allow development incompatible with single-family residential neighborhoods.

That review could come to benefit the community by encouraging a larger discussion of housing needs in the city and the requirements and allowances that need to be made for such projects. But what follows in coming months shouldn’t prevent a fair review of a proposal that could provide stable homes for some of the school district’s homeless students as well as similar projects in the future elsewhere in the city.

Housing Hope, a nonprofit agency that since 1987 has provided stable housing, supportive services and job training throughout Snohomish County, proposed a 34-unit apartment complex on land to be leased from Everett Public Schools on nearly three acres in the Port Gardner neighborhood at Norton Avenue and 36th Street. Now a grassy field, the property was once the location of Jackson Grade School until it was demolished in the 1950s.

The residences are intended to serve the school district’s homeless students, specifically those at Sequoia High School, the district’s alternative program, including some students who have children of their own who also attend Everett schools.

The need for that and other housing, specifically for students and their families is acute; the district counted more than 1,250 students living in unstable housing situations during the 2017-18 school year.

We recounted last month how housing instability impairs student performance and graduation rates. A lack of reliable shelter can mean frequent moves for students and changes in schools, significant loss of time in the classroom and concurrent problems with poverty, hunger, exposure to domestic violence and poor physical and mental health.

Opposition to the project from residents in the Port Gardner neighborhood was expected, and concern regarding the project is understandable. Some commenting Wednesday night during the council meeting expressed support for such projects, even as they questioned its appropriateness in their neighborhood.

So it comes down to the review of this issue, weighed against the need for housing.

The ordinance that the council has suspended and will consider for review was adopted three years ago as the city worked with Catholic Community Services on the project now known as Clare’s Place. Scheduled to open later this month or early July, the apartment complex includes 65 units built along Berkshire Drive, and will serve the city’s chronically homeless with housing and supportive services.

Clare’s Place, too, faced neighborhood opposition and complaints that the city hadn’t done enough, early enough to share its plans with residents and address their concerns. The hope is that as residents begin to move in and find stability the project’s compatibility within its neighborhood can be demonstrated.

Now, as then, the public process of review is under consideration. The ordinance adopted in 2016 allows for a review that is handled by a hearing examiner — an administrative law judge — rather than a process heard before the city’s planning commission and the city council. While both provide for public hearings, the hearing examiner has the final say in determining whether the proposal meets zoning and other requirements, including how a project fits within the neighborhood’s “historic overlay.”

Language has not been drafted for any amendments to the ordinance, but one possible change would put the process back before the planning commission and council, increasing opportunity for public participation but also potentially giving political considerations a foot in the door.

How to handle such proposals in the future is fair to consider, but before that process begins, the heat focused on Housing Hope’s project needs to be reduced and suspicions regarding various parties’ motivations should be shelved.

Residents’ concerns for what fits within their neighborhood are legitimate and will need to be considered and addressed.

But nothing is served by distrust for Housing Hope or the school district in their actions. Neither sought to avoid proper review of the proposal. And both have a keen interest in maintaining public trust of their actions.

The school district made the notifications required by law and made its lease offer contingent on approval of the project. The district, rightfully, saw an opportunity to take a little-used parcel of property and turn it over to an agency that can use it to provide housing and stability for Everett’s students.

Housing Hope began its conversations with city planning officials a year ago regarding the process it would need to complete and had discussed the basics of its proposal, Fred Safstrom, chief executive of Housing Hope told The Herald Editorial Board last week. And Safstrom acknowledged last month in describing the project to the editorial board that discussions with the neighborhood were planned and necessary.

The public’s confidence, its participation and its willingness to accept reasonable change are key if the needs for housing for homeless and low- and moderate-income families in Everett and throughout Snohomish County are to be met. Housing Hope’s proposal deserves consideration and a fair review.

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