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Tuesday, July 14, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Allow low-income housing on Spokane Valley church’s land

On June 19, the Spokane Valley City Council will consider whether to write an exception into the development code that would allow a multifamily project on one property at St. John Vianney Church. Such one-off legislative legerdemain is rarely ideal, but in this case it’s the best opportunity to move forward if the city won’t change the zoning. The council should approve the new rule after adding safeguards to ensure responsible development that respects the neighborhood.

Catholic Charities and St. John Vianney Church have wanted to put a low-income senior living complex on the property at the intersection of Walnut Road and Valleyway Avenue for years. The barrier has been zoning. The property is zoned for single-family homes with not more than six per acre.

In 2011, Catholic Charities asked the city to change the zoning to multifamily so the project could go forward. Neighbors opposed the change, and the council rejected it.

That was a mistake. The church property is not so deep into the middle of single-family housing that it would be disruptive. It’s a short block from other land zoned for multifamily development and a block from the commercial strip of Sprague Avenue, which includes a nearby grocery store. The church already operates a place of worship and school on the site.

No doubt neighbors enjoy having undeveloped land across the street, but that’s not a good reason to block desperately needed affordable housing.

If a zoning change isn’t in the offing, though, Catholic Charities has a new idea. The city could allow multifamily development in the single-family zone on any sufficiently large property with a church and a school. Coincidentally, it appears St. John Vianney is the only place that meets that definition. To put it bluntly, they want a rule that would apply only to them.

That’s hardly a graceful workaround, but it would be an effective one.

The region needs more affordable housing, including housing for low-income seniors. The 2015 Washington State Housing Needs Assessment found that in the Spokane urban region, more than 50,000 households earning less than the median family income were cost-burdened (paying more than 30 percent of income for housing expenses) or severely cost-burdened (more than 50 percent).

Things have not improved much since then. Indeed, the number of homeless residents sleeping outdoors or in shelters points to even greater need today than four years ago. Local governments have been working on the problem. For example, Spokane County’s HOME program has provided funding for affordable housing at Riverwalk Point and Hidden Pines. But those public projects are far from enough.

Catholic Charities is one of the local providers stepping up to fill the gap. It already provides 1,300 affordable housing units, and it would add dozens more if allowed to develop at St. John Vianney Church. Spokane Valley and all local governments should be looking to remove barriers to private and charitable projects like this.

That’s not to say that neighbors’ concerns about development are without merit. Their questions about parking, traffic, utilities and design compatibility with the neighborhood deserve answers. Dropping a few dozen new residents onto a street will have effects that must be mitigated.

The good news is that even if the rules change, the project would still have to go through a conditional use approval process. Council could even bolster that by specifying in the ordinance that the proposal must include specific plans to address parking, utilities and other concerns before approval. And all of it needs to be handled transparently. Presenting plans to neighbors well in advance to give them a chance to comment creates an opportunity for collaboration and buy-in over confrontation.

Catholic Charities asks for special treatment. It is fair to set the development and engagement bar higher.

The Spokane region continues to grow and the cost to live here continues to increase. Government and community partners can work together to meet the needs of all residents. Catholic Charities is a willing partner. Is the Spokane Valley City Council?

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