August 20, 2011 in Washington Voices

Catholic Charities Spokane ‘patient,’ believes it can do project well

By The Spokesman-Review
 

After getting a proposed low-income senior housing project shot down by the Spokane Valley City Council, Catholic Charities is considering what to do next.

The nonprofit organization’s board is still discussing whether to appeal the decision, said executive director Rob McCann. But the organization seems to be leaning toward a wait-and-see approach.

“Catholic Charities has been around for 100 years,” McCann said. “We’ll be around for another 100 years. We’re patient. I guess we’ll have to wait until the city council members themselves change.”

St. John Vianney Church bought a neighboring home with plans to have Catholic Charities build a senior housing complex on the land. The parcel was already zoned medium density residential and the church applied with the city to combine the newly purchased lot with the low density residential parcel used for the church’s parking lot and zone the new, larger parcel as medium density residential.

The project got a loud and immediate reaction from neighbors, who said they worried about everything from increased crime to decreased property values. The city’s planning commission recommended against the project and the City Council agreed.

McCann said he was dumbfounded by the “highly negative” comments from neighborhood residents. “Much of it was so embedded in extremely frightening stereotypes about the elderly and poor,” he said. “We got a lot of people worried about who was going to live there and would there be background checks and would there be criminals and sex offenders there.”

One man urged the planning commission not to turn his neighborhood into a “felony flats.”

“If my children went to St. John Vianney School, I wouldn’t want them playing with a low-income renter,” one woman said at a public meeting. “I don’t want them interacting with my children.”

Catholic Charities agreed to negotiate a development agreement to take into account neighborhood concerns about the size of the complex and how long it would remain low-income senior housing. Residents withdrew from the discussions, but Catholic Charities still signed an agreement to limit the size to 40 units, require it to remain low-income senior housing for at least 75 years and design it to fit in with the neighborhood better.

His organization has never done a development agreement before, McCann said. “These kinds of zone changes are so commonplace that we’ve never had one denied ever in 40 years,” he said.

At least 40 units are required to make the project financially viable, McCann said. Catholic Charities operates other low-income senior housing projects that are nearly double that size, he said. They are nicely landscaped and well maintained, he said.

McCann said he doesn’t blame the neighbors for their concerns. “Those neighbors are good people,” he said. “They let misinformation and fear and ignorance carry the day.”

He believes the council’s vote was a political decision, McCann said. “I think unfortunately that some of these City Council members made that decision because they’re up for re-election,” he said. “We were very disappointed with this decision, almost shocked.”

He also noted that some council members appeared to be reading from prepared statements before the vote was taken, “which really tells me that they had made up their minds before the meeting.”

During the zone change process, City Attorney Cary Driskell cautioned that the federal Religion Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act may apply. The law states that a city cannot use zoning to restrict a church’s activities that fulfill its religious mission because it would be a violation of the church’s rights. Helping the poor and elderly is part of the Catholic Church’s mission statement.

But McCann said he doesn’t think Catholic Charities will invoke the law because they aren’t interested in an expensive lawsuit that would only further upset the neighborhood. “We would rather win hearts and minds,” he said. “It’s just not who we are at Catholic Charities. We would rather find a peaceful resolution.”

But while McCann has no interest in a lawsuit, the issue of building low-income senior housing next to St. John Vianney is likely not over. “We believe we can do it,” he said. “We know we can do it well. There’s no reason to back away from that. If we have to wait, we’ll wait.”


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