Amid a declared housing emergency, Spokane will not offer more than $1 million to support affordable housing projects this year, primarily due to staffing shortages in City Hall.
The turnover in the Community, Housing and Human Services department has forced the city to skip its annual distribution of federal “HOME” funds for affordable housing, although city officials also attribute the decision to the complexity of the program.
The CHHS department is more than one-third vacant as top leaders have fled to jobs outside City Hall this year. Amid a housing crisis that has seen rent and home prices surge, city leaders have promised not to fall behind on critical work despite the dearth of employees.
The department recently notified the CHHS Board, a group of citizens that makes funding recommendations on affordable housing projects, that the HOME program will be put on the back burner.
“Due to department leadership gaps and staff capacity issues, it has been decided to skip a HOME RFP (request for proposals) this year,” Rebekah Tuno, a department staffer, wrote in an email to CHHS board members on July 27.
One of those unfilled positions is the HOME program manager, according to the email, an absence that has been filled by Tuno.
Each year, the city taps into the federal HOME funds to offer more than $1 million for projects that support low-income residents, including home rehabilitation, support for prospective homebuyers, low-income apartment construction and rental assistance.
Kirstin Davis, the interim deputy director of CHHS, told The Spokesman-Review that the city is not at risk of losing funds because HOME is a flexible, five-year program. A new request for proposals could be issued as early as next spring, while a request for information likely will be issued later this year to help assess the need and improve the grant program.
“It’s not just a staffing issue, it’s also the type of program and the parameters around that particular program,” Davis said.
The program is structured in a way that is intended to get “the ball across the goal line” for a developer, but it’s often months before a developer decides whether to use what they’ve been approved for, Davis said.
“Sometimes they apply for it and don’t end up using it,” Davis said.
Because the funding comes with myriad requirements, the city regularly sees only a portion of the money it commits to projects actually spent. In the 2017 fiscal year, it committed $891,000 to projects, but ultimately spent only $600,000. In fiscal 2020, the city committed a combined $1.26 million to two projects that have still been unable to secure the other sources of funding necessary to move forward.
Several top officials within the CHHS department, which oversees the city’s housing and homelessness programs, have left in recent months. They include the director, Timothy Sigler, and Cupid Alexander, who ran the division that encompasses the department.
The city has pledged to fill the vacant positions and is accepting applications for a new division director.
Given the staffing shortages and complexity of the HOME funding, CHHS Board Chair Adriane Leithauser said the city likely made the right decision in skipping a request for proposals this year. Still, she noted it “would be something that we would be doing” if staff members hadn’t departed.
“This is now out of whack with our normal funding cycle,” Leithauser said.
Given the current housing crisis, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said it is a “huge problem” that the city is not opening its HOME program this year.
Beggs called on the administration to bring in employees from other departments to help those who remain in CHHS. The administration has said it is using employees outside the department to help with tasks with which they have expertise, but Beggs suggested the city could hire special project employees to help handle the workload.
“We should run reinforcements in there, get people hired as soon as we can, and make housing and homelessness a priority,” Beggs said, adding that “we are not supporting our staff enough to keep them and not reinforcing them enough with other employees.”
Beggs pointed to Mayor Nadine Woodward’s recent proclamation declaring a housing crisis.
“It’s not Breean saying it’s a housing crisis, it’s the mayor, so the actions need to back that up. It’s challenging, I’m not here to say that it’s easy, but in a crisis that’s challenging, you have to make hard decisions,” Beggs said.
Tuno’s email shined some light on the situation within CHHS.
“I just haven’t been able to focus on it with being stretched so thin,” Tuno wrote.
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