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Shawn Vestal: Where should we look for housing solutions? Not here, not here, not here

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Good news: We’ve discovered the perfect neighborhood for affordable housing and shelter projects.

It meets all the criteria. It satisfies every concern. It comes with no traffic worries or safety problems to trouble the neighbors.

It’s perfect, really.

It’s Somewhere Else.

Where can a local charity put a 70-unit apartment complex for seniors without much money? Not in big-lots Spokane Valley. No. That complex goes Somewhere Else.

Where can affordable multifamily developments go? The neighbors in Somewhere Else welcome them everywhere.

Where can the city of Spokane open a badly needed shelter for the homeless, as another winter approaches? A shelter that would replace some of the beds we lost in 2018, and spread services for desperate people beyond the east end of downtown?

That shelter would fit perfectly in the heart of downtown Somewhere Else.

Somewhere Else dominates the realm of affordable housing and services for the poor. Everyone agrees we need that housing and those services. Everyone has, they assure everyone else, a heart for the suffering among us. And everyone concludes, over and over again, that right next to them is simply not the right place.

Most recently, Somewhere Else has again entered the community’s attempts to provide badly needed shelter beds for the homeless. Spokane lost 100 beds with the closure of the all-comers model at the House of Charity in September 2018. Since then, city officials have worked to fill that gap, a process that has moved along much more slowly than initially promised.

The lack of sufficient shelter led to a crisis last winter, with the city scrambling to try to house homeless people through a patchwork effort of charities and other organizations providing makeshift warming centers. As we head toward another winter, we need more shelter space to avoid a repeat of that.

We also need to think of having services in more than just one part of the community. And we need other governments in the region to step up and take on more responsibility. It shouldn’t be just the city of Spokane’s challenge.

A proposed shelter at 4210 E. Sprague Ave. would seem to address so many of those needs. It would add 120 beds, along with a variety of other services. The city has proposed buying a building there and offering a contract for someone to run it, though a hard-and-fast timeline doesn’t exist – and now support for the whole idea is weakening.

The catch is that the new shelter would be located next door to Project id, and in the East Central Neighborhood. Project id serves people with disabilities, and the folks who run the place have concerns about a homeless shelter right next door. Their clients are vulnerable, and thus susceptible to bad actors, the officials have said. They understand the need for homeless services, but this, they have said, is not the right place. The neighbors agree – not the right place.

Not long ago, Somewhere Else was also deemed to be the right place for a Catholic Charities project in the Spokane Valley that would have added 70 units for low-income seniors on St. John Vianney Church property. The Spokane Valley City Council decided that, just as the neighbors of the residential zone argued, it was not the right place for the project.

Somewhere Else. Always the right place.

As appealing as it is, though, it just won’t serve the solution to our problem. Top to bottom, we have an affordable housing crisis. Homelessness is a part of it, but it sits at the bottom of a hierarchy of affordable housing – from the least expensive apartment to single-family homes – that is suffering a supply problem at every level. A recent decision by the City Council to expand an incentive zone for multifamily projects in Spokane could help, though the incentive does not target affordable housing specifically.

Kay Murano, executive director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium, said she regularly surveys nonprofits about the availability of affordable housing. The most recent figures from January showed there was a vacancy rate of less than 2% in the housing available through those services.

Our housing crisis is woven deeply into poverty. Whenever we talk about homelessness or crime or affordable housing, what we’re really talking about is one tentacle of a complex octopus that grows from this stubborn, long-term social reality.

Nearly a quarter of Spokane residents qualify for food stamps (though only 17% actually receive them), and half of the students in public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. You can cite the stats all day long. A lot of people live on very little here, and they often struggle to find a place to live. A needs assessment conducted by Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs for 2016-18 concluded that for every 100 households considered “extremely low-income,” there were 12 affordable places to live here.

Where shall we fill in that 88-household gap? Somewhere Else?

What that actually means, too often, is nowhere.