If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
Small town city council meetings rarely rise to the level of interest where the public takes notice. Outside of the usual local political gadflies and stalwarts, who in their right mind would willingly submit themselves to business-as-usual public agendas?
However, every now and then, that public agenda crosses into topics that have a tendency to generate more heat than light. So that is how I found myself on March 23rd, a Tuesday night, remotely watching the city council meeting of my hometown, Centralia, Washington.
The subject that drew my particular attention to this meeting was the 10th item on the agenda:
Consideration on first reading of an ordinance amending CMC 20.72.030.B Off-Street Parking and Loading - Minimum Requirements - Residential Uses
This alone would hardly be compelling but the details in the agenda specify that this change is regarding permanent supportive housing (PSH), i.e. low-income housing.
Why would this interest me? Primarily because our town has a not-insignificant homeless population and I participate in a church that serves that population in providing food, clothing, care coordination, and other services.
The city of Centralia provides recordings of council meetings and you can watch this city council meeting here. I'll try to give rough timestamps for items I will discuss below.
For the purposes of this article, I'm limiting my discussion to just the agenda item #10 as specified above which starts at about 1 hour and 27 minutes into the meeting.
Emil Pierson is the Director of Community Development. He starts the agenda item off by defining the boundaries of the issue at hand. Basically, this is in regard to a change in the city zoning requirements toward a type of special housing (PSH). He makes a point to state that it is NOT about any particular projects in and of themselves.
To summarize: the existing city code requires multi-family housing projects of a certain size to provide the following:
Reliable Enterprises is asking to change the code to allow permanent supportive housing (PSH) to only provide 1.5 parking spaces per unit.
I can't help but think that if the nuance of the discussion had been properly understood by the council members, the meeting would have been much shorter and this article would have never been penned.
However, that nuance was immediately forgotten and it led to, what I think, is an important conversation to consider.
Rather than discuss the changes to the specific parking requirements and the very specific multi-family housing it would apply to, the council seemed to immediately shift the discussion to Reliable Enterprises and the permanent supportive housing project they were looking to provide.
Centralia Mayor Susan Luond began the discussion asking questions about whether builders would want covered parking at which Pierson replies that all builders are looking to reduce costs and none would likely build covered parking if it wasn't required.
Councilor Max Vogt expresses some concern over the reduction of parking and whether or not that will increase on-street parking.
Luond asks Pierson, who was still presenting at this time, to define permanent supportive housing. He directs them to the agenda packet that provides the definition.
It's at this point that things take a particular turn. Around 1hr and 34 minutes, Luond veers into a tangent:
"My biggest problem with this proposal is it's going to open the door for many more of this. And we have seen some of the current ones that are overflowing their parking and they're on the streets and so I have a real problem with reducing this because I think it's going to bring more into our area of kind of the same thing and I just feel like with 1.5 spaces? ... and I also believe the garage is a dignity thing and I honestly think it's nice that people have something, a place if they have a car that they could put it in there due to our weather or even if they did want to put a little storage in there. you know I think it's... I like the way we currently read is I guess what I'm saying."
There is a lot going on in this quote but I'll try to summarize my concerns:
At this point, Bret Mitchell comes forth on behalf of Reliable Enterprises to answer questions from the council. Councilor Rebecca Staebler leads with comments regarding the costs incurred by parking requirements.
Mitchell takes a step back to discuss the economics of permanent supportive housing (1hr 36m):
"Let me be clear on permanent supportive housing and the economics of permanent supportive housing. Nobody in their right mind would do permanent supportive housing. They are not going to invest millions of dollars into an apartment complex and get a half a percent return because the rents are fixed ....."
Mitchell goes on to break down the specifics of the project and to define terms. I would encourage you to watch the video, but the basic summary is this:
... subsidized, leased housing with no limit on length of stay that prioritizes people who need comprehensive support services to retain tenancy.
Mitchell goes on to discuss how PSH is operated. Stressing that case managers are on-site 8 hours a day, 5 days a week to assist tenants and provide resources. The building will have external security cameras and so on.
This agenda item took an hour to discuss and for the sake of my sanity and my keyboard I'll refrain from breaking it down minute by minute. I would however like to make a few comments and pull some choice quotes that I found revealing from this discussion.
"Now I don't want to appear hard hearted here because I am not... I am in full support of people that need help. But I also have to look at the health of our city and currently we have 18 low income housing units here. And I did a quick tally here, and that's over 878 units that we're already providing for low income people. So we have to look at the health of Centralia and we have to have a balance."
To which Bret Mitchell responds:
"So how would we get rid of the low income population that needs housing then?"
Mayor Luond's response:
Well I'm just saying that Centralia can't bear the whole weight of it. That it's... to our tax structure and to everything else, we have to look at the health of our city also, because ... when we were doing our planning it was quite evident that instead of more low income housing, we needed more mid-level housing or higher. That's what was needed in this area. We're trying to keep a balance. And right now I feel like, and I'm sorry to say this, because I don't want to be hard-hearted, we're tipping the balance. we've got such a huge concentration of low-income housing here that, uhm I... just feel, I don't know if I want... to put this on the citizens of Centralia that are trying to support this community with their tax dollars and stuff... you can only spread a population so thin on that. And you've got 18 units here that I don't know if all of them are not paying property taxes but if they're not that means that every citizen in Centralia is picking up the property taxes that these units are not paying. So I really feel like Centralia is very generous with their low income housing and has probably done a very good job to this date. I just personally can't support it with no garages and that it doesn't stay to the standard of what other people have been required to do."
My biggest concern with Mayor Luond's rationale and what I think Mitchell was trying to correct, is that Luond appears to be addressing this issue prescriptively. Meaning, she seems to have an idea in mind of what our community should look like income-wise and this proposal will upset her prescribed income balance. She seems too little concerned with the actual descriptive makeup of our community. That we do in fact have a significant low-income population. Her references to balance here seem arbitrary.
A city plan that doesn't address the actual demographics of our population is certainly going to find surprises when members of that population don't fit into the prescribed "balance".
I also wonder if the city is at risk of any legal jeopardy regarding her thoughts on mid-level to high-level housing being what we need. Sure, given the choice, I think most cities would love only mid to high tiered interest in their city. To my knowledge, nothing on this agenda item prohibits just those economic entities from building here. Unless this project and the 18 others are taking up land that would otherwise go to more higher end complexes but I doubt it.
Luond also appears to consider this request to the parking requirements a one-to-one comparison. As though other contractors would happily take half a percent return on investment if they could just forgo having to provide covered parking.
At the end of the day, Mayor Luond's comments struck me as devoid of consideration for the actual population who needs this housing opportunity: The low-income, Centralia school district enrolled families, who may also be quite possibly suffering from undignified on-street parking.
5 to 2 in favor of the first reading. I'd like to highlight, that it was only approved after it had been explained by Pierson that this was in the urban growth area and therefore wouldn't actually have anything to do with city police or other public services. Pierson may have cinched it when he pointed out that the city actually gets MORE money per utilities if it is in the UGA.
In the end, it appeared there was a collective sigh of relief from the council when they discovered it technically wasn't their problem. Telling indeed.
This article isn't meant to express anger at our councilors. I'm thankful for our city council. I appreciate the work they are trying to do and I get that it is difficult making decisions that are bound to leave someone frustrated. I would admonish them though, to choose their words more carefully. To not assume that we have enough low-income housing just because we have existing low-income housing. To not dismiss an existing segment of our demographics because they may not pay property tax and therefore only consider them nothing more than a burden to our town.
What if our town embraced the reality of our low income population? Not with resignation but with a determination to find creative ways to bring stability and opportunities to that demographic? What if we didn't impose on our city what we think it should look like and instead, work with what we have?
None of these issues are easy. Nor are they easily solved. However, an opportunity that presents itself fully funded that will alleviate and bring stability to a population in need in trade for reduced parking hardly seems a devil's bargain.
I can't help but think that our existing city code addresses these concerns. The idea of denying multi-family housing because many people will live and park their cars there, thus creating a severe safety issue in the event of a hypothetical earthquake strikes me as unnecessary speculation and more likely, avoiding the actual issue.