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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council candidates disagree on homelessness, affordable housing

From left, Phillip Tyler, Breean Beggs and Cindy Wendle, all candidates for Spokane City Council president, talk after the second of two League of Women Voters council candidate forums on Thursday, June 27, 2019, in the City Council Chambers in City Hall. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane City Council candidates were divided Thursday night on how to make Spokane safer and reduce homelessness, with some arguing for mandatory drug treatment and more police, and others saying more housing was the best way to get people off the street.

The four candidates running for City Council president, council members Breean Beggs and Mike Fagan, community activist Phil Tyler and shopping center owner Cindy Wendle, all agreed there is a housing shortage and many people no longer feel safe in their neighborhoods. However, they disagreed on how to improve public safety and encourage growth

The debate was the second of two council candidate forums organized by the League of Women Voters.

Beggs, who is also a civil rights attorney, said the city needs to expand its multifamily-housing tax exemption so more apartments can be built. He said the City Council already has changed some zoning rules to allow apartments to be built along corridors where there is already infrastructure like police and fire stations to handle the increased population and traffic.

Fagan, who also hosts a conservative radio show, argued that city staff should be meeting with homebuilders so they can develop informed policies that lower barriers to new housing construction.

Tyler, a former president of the Spokane NAACP who has been accused by mutliple former wives of domestic violence, said people need to stop villainizing landlords. He said the city needs to support housing at all levels and support the trades so there are enough skilled workers to build more housing.

Wendle, who previously managed a Washington Trust Bank branch, said many rental properties are owned or managed by “mom and pop landlords” who may not be able to comply with increasingly strict government regulations. She said those types of landlords are more flexible than larger companies, and city staff need to consult with developers and people in the industry when looking at future regulations.

Beggs said most people are homeless because they don’t have money for rent and there isn’t enough housing. He said the city should have a 24/7 shelter, and mental health and drug treatment should be available, but those aren’t necessarily the primary causes of homelessness.

“The deal with people is you have to hold them accountable for their behaviors, treat them with dignity (and) provide 24-hour services,” he said. “But the cure to homelessness is mostly more housing.”

Fagan said the city’s partnerships with nonprofits and service providers have been very successful, but there are some “lawless” people who are living on riverbanks and streets that have made the police force feel demoralized. Fagan said the city should investigate using Ricky’s Law, which allows mental health professionals to involuntarily detain people with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Fagan also said the city’s drug issues could potentially be solved if there was more enforcement at the U.S. border with Mexico. If he was council president, he said he would do what he could to ensure immigration officials could do their jobs. Fagan previously voted against a proposal to keep the Border Patrol out of the city’s bus station.

Tyler said the City Council is listening to some of the loudest homeless advocates instead of the people who are homeless and suffering the most. He said the city should do a better job of partnering with nonprofits that restore people’s dignity and retrain them to enter society.

“This is simply not about throwing dollars at a situation,” he said.

Wendle said the city should spend more time studying why people are homeless because it is likely more than just the lack of affordable housing. She said the city also needs to enforce its laws so it can extend treatment to people who need it most.

Wendle and Beggs agreed that climate change was an issue facing the city. Wendle said she would focus on keeping the river clean and added that as a mother with children who have athsma she is concerned about air quality. She said she disagreed with the idea of the city making expensive policies that take resources away from other priorities.

Beggs said Spokane needs to develop its own solutions to reduce the impacts of climate change. He said he has worked with Avista Corp. to come up with a renewable energy agreement and he plans to work collaboratively with different groups to create more plans to reduce the city’s contribution to climate change.

Fagan said he did not think climate change was caused by humans, and Phil Tyler said the city’s cultural climate should be a higher priority. Tyler also said Beggs and Fagan’s comments about having the most experience was code for privielege and was not welcoming.

“My opponents statement on experience is why we need to work on becoming a more welcoming city,” he said. “You have a black male and a female sitting here, and two white males opposing us, to use the term that we may not have experience to (lead) this council is not welcoming.”

Fagan said Tyler had misidentified his racial identity.

“I am more Japanese than anything else and I have been the only diversity on the City Council for the last sever years,” Fagan said.

Candidates for the south Spokane council seat and the northwest Spokane seat also shared their ideas. Incumbent council members Lori Kinnear and Karen Stratton said the city’s housing-first policies are how the city should address homelessness. Their challengers focused on mental health and drug treatment as potential solutions to homelessness.

Kinnear is facing real estate broker Liz Fleming, who said she wants to bring developers and city staff together, and highlighted that she would bring a fresh perspective to the council. Kinnear also is facing Tony Kiepe, who recently retired from consulting at insurance agency Arista Point. Kiepe criticized the city’s approach to dealing with homelessness, saying its free services could bring more homeless people to Spokane.

Stratton is facing five challengers. Jeff Martin, a fraud examiner for the state, was one of several candidates who said they didn’t feel safe taking their children downtown. Both he and Jeff Rugan, a recruiter at Express Employment, said they had seen people doing drugs or having a mental breakdown. Andy Rathbun, an Air Force veteran, said public safety was his biggest priority but he also hoped to focus on ensuring housing was available for all income levels.

Christopher Savage, a Lyft driver, said giving people on hard times what they want may not allow them to change their situation. Ken Side, a retired Postal Service worker, said he is running for the City Council to “get some things off of his chest.” He said he supports President Donald Trump, believes in God and is anti-abortion.