The city of Vancouver is considering repealing an ordinance that its attorneys say discriminates against poor people.
Originally adopted in 1991, the Human Services Facilities ordinance primarily regulates where services, such as a food pantries, free clinics and shelters, can be located. It grew out of concerns that services were being concentrated on the west side, particularly downtown, so the intent was to disperse those facilities. While it wasn’t originally meant to discriminate, the city determined that was an outcome of the ordinance.
“It picks on one group based on their status and treats them differently,” said Chad Eiken, the city’s community and economic development director. “It was really the wrong approach.”
He said there is a growing body of case law against regulating places based on their clients’ socioeconomic status. While the city hasn’t been sued, there is a risk if the city keeps the ordinance on the books. Eiken doesn’t know of another city with a similar ordinance. The greatest legal concern is the part of the ordinance that says certain services cannot be located within 1,320 feet of each other, and transitional housing cannot be located less than a mile from another transitional housing facility.
The spacing requirements are arbitrary, Eiken said, and having different processes and regulations makes facilities harder to site. The ordinance, however, does have different exemptions and encourages co-location, or expansion of facilities on the same campus. Still, the language gets tricky and the same goes for tracking facilities over time. For example, there is an exemption for facilities averaging fewer than 19 daily clients but no way to know when that client base increases, Eiken said.
Repealing the ordinance — and its spacing requirements — means facilities could locate closer together, though specific case-by-case impacts would still need to be addressed.
One problem with the current ordinance is it treats all types of service facilities the same; it assumes a food pantry, a free clinic and a homeless shelter have the same negative impacts, Eiken said.
The ordinance defines “human service facility” as “any office, store assembly place or facility, the general purpose of which is to provide human need services directly and at no or reduced costs to individuals who do not have the means, ability or opportunity to obtain such services themselves.”
“It doesn’t make sense in my mind to treat them differently than any other clinic or office just because they’re serving people who can’t afford to pay for those services,” Eiken said.
A dental or medical clinic — regardless of whether it’s subsidized or not — should be treated the same. That’s the philosophy.
New zoning codes
The city’s idea is to repeal the whole ordinance and replace it with updates to zoning codes. For instance, day centers that provide shelter and services for homeless people during the day are not found in the code right now and could be added as a type of facility use.
It’s likely day centers and shelters would become conditional uses under the proposed changes. That means the use would be subject to a public hearing and that it would be permitted so long as it met certain conditions mitigating adverse impacts. Those who are interested could give more nuanced feedback about the potential impacts of the use beyond the blanket standards set by the current ordinance.
Maybe a new shelter is approved on the condition that neighboring blocks are kept free of garbage. If that condition is not adhered to, then the city would have the legal ability to enforce those conditions, or even revoke that facility’s permit. Under the current ordinance, there are no consequences outside of maybe a fine for not picking up trash. Eiken said he’s not aware of anybody being fined.
However, at $5,928 a conditional-use permit is costlier, so Eiken imagines he’ll get some pushback from service providers. Sharon Rice, the city’s hearings examiner, is in charge of approving conditional-use permits, and those decisions can be appealed.
Details are still being hammered out, and there will be a planning commission workshop before the changes are brought to city council for a workshop. A public hearing is slated for October. In the meantime, Eiken is visiting neighborhoods to get the word out about the proposed changes.
On Thursday, he talked at Arnada’s neighborhood association meeting about the changes. Residents there have had problems with homeless people roving the area, sleeping in front of their homes and leaving trash or belongings behind.
Heather Beecher, the neighborhood association’s secretary, said the issue of homelessness is complex. She knows services are required, but believes the bigger answer is more long-term housing for people who need it. And, she’s heard about the difficulties faced by people who live near Share House, the men’s homeless shelter on the west edge of downtown Vancouver.
“I can understand people not wanting all the services for homeless people in their neighborhood,” she said.
Katie Scaief, president of the Arnada Neighborhood Association, said repealing the current ordinance and updating zoning codes could be beneficial so long as the city is transparent.
“If they want to be successful they have to be willing to listen to the residents,” she said.
Scaief is unsure how the potential changes in the law would impact her neighborhood.