Reading the Prop. 1 vote is complex

Idea of Hazel Dell site for homeless shelters stirs uncertainty

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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Memo Proposition 1 Spending Outside City Limits

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Vancouver Affordable Housing Fund Administrative and Financial Plan

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The idea of converting a Hazel Dell wedding venue into a 60-bed homeless shelter doesn’t appear to be panning out.

When the Vancouver City Council discussed the idea at Monday’s meeting, however, it triggered questions about the city’s Affordable Housing Fund: Can money from the fund be used for a project outside of city limits? Can the allotment of money be changed?

If yes, should it?

In November, voters approved Proposition 1, a new property levy that will bring in $6 million dollars a year for seven years to be spent on building and preserving affordable homes, as well as providing rental assistance and services for low-income households.

The spending plan included 5 percent toward temporary shelter, but buying the Hostess House in Hazel Dell and converting it into a shelter would take up a bigger percentage of the fund. The idea was for the Vancouver Housing Authority to purchase the Hostess House at 10017 N.E. Sixth Ave., with the Affordable Housing Fund covering the $1.8 million rehab as well as the seven-year operating costs: $800,000 annually, or $5.6 million over seven years.

Councilor Jack Burkman said investing money in a shelter would reduce the rental assistance spelled out in Proposition 1 and be a dramatic change from what voters were told. Mayor Tim Leavitt said the project isn’t in Vancouver city limits, making it challenging to ensure that city residents would be served by the shelter.

Vancouver City Attorney Bronson Potter released a memo on his legal interpretation of putting a shelter outside of city limits. The fund’s administrative and financial plan says it can be updated and changed periodically. “Whether funding a shelter in the county is a major, substantial or minor deviation is one that would be subject to judicial interpretation,” Potter wrote.

“My suggestion is that, if there is a desire to participate in the provision of a homeless shelter outside of the city, we should either amend the Affordable Housing Finance Plan to include projects in the county that provide benefits to the city and its residents or use recording fee revenue for the shelter and use Proposition 1 revenue to fund programs that are currently supported by the recording fees,” the memo said.

Interpretations

City councilors differed on how they interpreted the administrative and financial plan.

Councilor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said she believes voters thought levy money would be spent inside Vancouver city limits.

She said her biggest concern is that the city did not plan to operate a shelter, much less for $800,000 annually. Maybe that should’ve been part of the language of Proposition 1, McEnerny-Ogle said. She added that the city has never operated a shelter.

“This is not the pot of money for that,” she said. “When we make an agreement, I think we need to hold to that agreement.”

Since no money has been collected or disbursed, it’s too soon to be making amendments to the financial plan, McEnerny said. However, after the fund has been used for a while and evaluated, maybe the city could consider changes.

“We’ll figure this out. It means we’ll need to keep looking and work harder,” she said, adding that there are other options out there.

Roy Johnson, executive director of the Vancouver Housing Authority, said he was looking for buildable land that could accommodate housing projects when he stumbled across the listing for the Hostess House. After seeing the square footage of the facility and being well aware of the area’s homelessness issue, he offered it up as a possibility.

The Hostess House is on 1.17 acres and is listed for $1.55 million on RMLS, a real estate listing service. The description for the “one of a kind” Hostess House notes that it has a commercial kitchen and offices — features of homeless shelters. “Use your imagination for use of this building,” the listing said. It’s one of 33 commercial listings in Clark County.

Johnson said that housing authority’s board didn’t make any sort of commitment to buy the property.

“I would think at this point, it’s probably moved off the range of possibility as an idea,” he said.

Even though the project doesn’t appear to be working out, Johnson said “that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be a point of conversation.”

City Councilor Alishia Topper said she saw the Hostess House as a “financially feasible” option that’s cheaper than building a new shelter from the ground up, though she’s not wedded to that particular location.

“I am married to the idea of finding a place to add capacity,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a political debate. Ultimately, that plan is an administrative document.”

She added that no matter where a shelter is put, there will be people who don’t want it.

“The environment around this housing crisis evolved so rapidly that you have to have some flexibility,” Topper said. She’s OK with shifting money from rental assistance to temporary shelter — both are part of homelessness prevention — but she said she wouldn’t want to touch the money set aside for building and preserving affordable housing.

Flexibility needed

“The administration and finance plan, as it clearly states, was always intended to be updated often, to match the needs and opportunities in the community,” Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, said in an email. “We knew that we needed this flexibility, because Bellingham has amended their administration and finance plan five times since it was originally passed with the first amendment six months after the election.”

(Proposition 1 was modeled after a similar proposition that passed in Bellingham.)

Emergency shelter is an important part of the homelessness system, and there’s an insufficient amount of space, Silver said. Last year, the Council for the Homeless was able to help only 30 percent of families with children requesting emergency shelter.

Peggy Sheehan, the manager of Vancouver’s community development program who presented the Hostess House idea, will respond to more questions from the city council on March 6. At the meeting, council members will discuss whether they want to amend the Affordable Housing Fund’s financial plan to allow spending outside of city limits and to reallocate funds to support a shelter.

Sheehan said that the Hostess House idea is still just that — an idea. Whatever the council ends up deciding could impact other future opportunities. When asked whether she thought the possible project was still viable, Sheehan said she wasn’t sure.

“I gave up a long time ago trying to predict,” she said. “It’s in (the councilors’) very capable hands.”