Housing project planned for Vancouver

30-unit apartment building would aid chronically homeless

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Click to enlarge.

The Vancouver Housing Authority wants to build a 30-unit studio apartment building for chronically homeless people who haven’t cleaned up their acts, and maybe never will.

If the plan is approved, the 16,000-square-foot building would rise directly across the street from Share House, the men’s shelter and soup kitchen on West 13th Street in downtown Vancouver. The new facility, named Lincoln Place, would be on Lincoln Avenue between 13th and 14th streets.

Living in the building would be people who are still struggling with the problems that contributed to their homelessness — chiefly, mental illness, substance abuse and addiction. It would be considered permanent housing for them, according to Vancouver Housing Authority Executive Director Roy Johnson, whether or not they ever beat those problems.

Still more of the chronically homeless would be placed at scattered sites owned by willing local landlords, said Amy Reynolds, the program director at Share. Overall there are “at least 70” chronically homeless people in the area who have been identified by outreach teams as being at the greatest risk of dying on the streets unless they are helped into housing, she said.

“Housing First” is the theory behind the plan. That’s a model for fighting hard-core homelessness that’s had “great results” across the nation, said Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless. It means getting people into housing quickly, no matter their troubles, and then assessing their needs and providing the services that will help keep them off the streets in the future.

“It’s called ‘low-barrier’ housing,” Silver said, and it’s aimed directly at “the small percentage of homeless who … are homeless for years and years. They are the hardest to reach people. Unfortunately, they’re also the most visible. Historically, other programs and services haven’t worked for them.”

Intensified services for those people would be managed by Share. The building would include case-management office space. Reynolds said there’s no obligation for residents to accept services — but there’s an obligation for the service providers to try their hardest to deliver them.

The developer would be Vancouver Affordable Housing, a legal subsidiary of the Vancouver Housing Authority. The project cost is estimated to be $4.7 million, with $3.5 million coming from tax credits that can be sold to private investors, reducing the project’s debt and providing the investors with a 10-year tax benefit, Johnson said. All 30 units in the building would be considered public housing.

Rent at the building would be heavily subsidized, and held down to 30 percent of each resident’s income, Johnson said.

A pre-development loan of $300,000 from VHA to VAH is needed, according to a staff report, and in early 2014 the VAH would apply to the Washington State Low Income Housing Trust Fund for tax credits and additional money.

The Vancouver Housing Authority board of directors will consider approving partnership and pre-development funding agreements for Lincoln Place during its regular monthly public meeting, set for 10 a.m. today at 2500 Main St. Johnson is hoping to get all arrangements made by spring, and construction underway before the end of 2014. He doesn’t expect to need Vancouver City Council approval because the land is already zoned appropriately.

‘Housing First’

“Housing First” holds that the essential building block of a stable life is a stable place to live. No matter their problems or self-defeating behaviors, it’s best to speed chronically homeless people into housing and then start bolstering them with services to help reverse those behaviors — rather than requiring them to jump through difficult hoops before they can hope to get a roof over their heads.

That turns decades of conventional wisdom on its head, Silver said, but it also makes sense. It is more solution-oriented and less expensive to society at large than paying for the other services that chronically homeless people tend to need — like 911 calls and police response, emergency room beds and jail space.

“It’s really hard to overcome personal challenges when you don’t have stable housing,” Silver said. How does a person who’s toughing it out all winter in the woods or in an old car summon the strength and resources to fight addiction, get healthy, get on with life?

Where Housing First has been tried, its results are dramatic, Silver said. For example, 80 percent to 90 percent of the homeless people housed by Housing First programs tend to keep living where they’ve been placed, he said. Plus, he said, nearly half also make progress in beating their other troubles once they’re got someplace to call their own.

“It’s been shown that just living in a household is therapeutic. You see all sorts of improvements just by the fact that they are living in safe housing,” he said.

Reservations about the plan have been voiced by the former chairwoman of the Vancouver Housing Authority board of directors. Ceci Ryan Smith, who left the board last spring, doesn’t believe the public has had a chance to study the proposal. She’s worried about concentrating too many services for the poor in one place, she said.

“It’s been going on in downtown Vancouver for over 20 years,” she said. “There are people all throughout Clark County who have challenges. They should be met where they are.”

Silver said the plan is aimed at the chronically homeless who are already haunting downtown. Johnson said putting the new building beside Share House is a way to contain the whole operation and its clients. “Living there permanently is one of the benefits,” he said. “The staff from each facility will support each other.”

“There is just no way for us to move forward without doing Housing First,” Silver said. “The folks who’ll be served are the ones we hear about from businesses downtown, from neighborhood associations. These are the people you think of, when you think of a stereotypical homeless person. It’s someone living on a sidewalk or in an encampment somewhere near downtown.”