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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Catholic Charities project for homeless draws the ire of West Hills Neighborhood

Aug. 7, 2022 Updated Sat., Sept. 3, 2022 at 2:10 p.m.

An attempt to locate supportive housing for homeless people near a residential community is being met with fierce opposition from neighbors convinced the effort, however well-intentioned, will destroy their neighborhood.

It’s a familiar tale in Spokane that’s playing out once more – this time, over a property atop Sunset Hill that’s largely existed as a hotel.

Discussions are ongoing in the effort to transform the Quality Inn on Sunset Boulevard into an emergency supportive housing facility run by Catholic Charities Eastern Washington.

Catholic Charities’ Catalyst Project would convert the Quality Inn into 87 rooms for 100 to 120 adults. The facility will not be a walk-up shelter or offer walk-up services; rather, rooms will only be available through referral from local community partners.

The Catalyst Project has received partial funding approval through the state Department of Commerce’s Rights of Way Initiative.

The Department of Commerce announced the $6.5 million award to Catholic Charities last month as part of a plan proposed by the city of Spokane to relocate more than 600 homeless people in an encampment on state land at Second Avenue and Ray Street, known as Camp Hope, into stable living situations.

As of Friday, the sides are still hashing out a contract to make way for property acquisition, according to Catholic Charities.

The property is owned by Surmohin Hotel, LLC, which bought 4301 W. Sunset Blvd. for $3.49 million in January 2017, according to Spokane County property records. State records show the LLC is owned by Ranjit Gara, who is the governor of a similar corporation that owns at least one other hotel in the area: the Best Western Plus in Liberty Lake.

Gara did not return multiple calls for comment.

Catholic Charities said $6.5 million is the expected acquisition price based on a third-party appraisal commissioned by the organization.

Meanwhile, a separate contract is needed for services and operations, for which Catholic Charities has requested an additional $7.3 million in state Rights of Way funding.

That covers $1.8 million for property rehabilitation and another $5.5 million for operations, though operational costs are expected to go down “dramatically” once the hotel is fully converted into permanent supportive housing, according to the funding proposal submitted to the state Department of Commerce.

Commerce will contract with Catholic Charities to run the facility. As Catholic Charities awaits approval for the services and operations funding, state officials said the final amount of that contract is not yet known.

Without that additional $7.3 million, the project won’t be able to move forward, Jonathan Mallahan, chief housing officer for Catholic Charities, said in a statement.

Once that’s secured with the acquisition, however, Catholic Charities has committed to start housing people within 90 days.

Services will include on-site care coordinators for managing connections for clients, whether those are to primary medical care, employment resources, education services and other public benefits. Dawn Kinder, Catholic Charities’ chief stabilization officer, said the Catalyst Project also will have other support services on site, including from behavioral health staff.

“We’re excited to be able to provide a different type of solution to the community and an intervention style we’ve not had before in Spokane,” she said, “especially given the homelessness crisis we’re facing.”

‘There’s nothing here for them’

Catholic Charities plans to provide bus passes and one or two 12-passenger vans for transporting clients staying at the Catalyst Project, Kinder said.

The Quality Inn sits at the top of Sunset Hill at the intersection of the boulevard and South Rustle Street near the southwestern edge of the city’s West Hills Neighborhood. There’s a bus stop nearby, while the only sidewalk down Sunset Hill is across the street on the north side of the three-lane highway.

The Browne’s Addition Rosauers is 2 miles away. The nearest convenience store, Sunset Foodmart, is about a mile and a half down the hill, past the John A. Finch Arboretum. The Indian Canyon apartments are a quarter-mile north, with more houses and the Indian Canyon Golf Course just a bit farther up.

“There’s nothing here for them. There’s one tiny little gas station right at the foot of the Sunset Bridge,” said William Hagy, vice chair of the West Hills Neighborhood Council. “To me, it just seems like they threw a lawn dart out in this direction and found it.”

Hagy was among several neighbors who shared their concerns Monday night with the Spokane City Council.

Their grievances extended beyond just the Quality Inn project to other potential concepts they’ve heard could affect their community. That included a separate Rights of Way funding proposal by the Empire Health Foundation: Pallet shelter villages, totaling 75 units for 125 residents, on 3 acres of foundation-owned land along Sunset Highway.

Hagy said West Hills residents are already frustrated by reports of thefts and other criminal activity that take place in their neighborhood. They fear these issues will exacerbate that while lowering property values, he said.

Beyond those concerns, Hagy said he feels the hotel conversion doesn’t look financially solvent given how the proposal makes up more than half of the $24.3 million Rights of Way funding offered to the city by the Department of Commerce. Hagy also said there has been no communication with neighbors about the planning and development of the Catalyst Project, while concerns have compounded with reports of rising crime in the area neighboring the Camp Hope homeless encampment.

“(Neighbors) are just in complete civil unrest and duress at the name Catholic Charities alone moving into the West Hills,” Hagy said.

Catholic Charities was unable to share early details about the Catalyst Project with the West Hills Neighborhood Council due to an agreement with the current property owner, Mallahan said.

Mallahan said the property owner was concerned with disruption to staff and hotel operations if word got out about a potential sale. As such, Catholic Charities was unable to disclose the location until the project went public.

That was on July 22, at which point Catholic Charities reportedly reached out to the neighborhood council.

“We will be engaging with the neighborhood on an ongoing basis before and during project operation,” Mallahan said in the statement, later adding, “Being a good neighbor is a critical component of Catholic Social Teaching. One way we live this value is through ongoing and active engagement with neighborhoods. As was the case with Catalyst, we must respect the wishes of property owners while we negotiate real estate acquisitions.”

Catholic Charities is sending a letter to the neighbors and businesses in the immediate proximity with more information such as the project webpage and resources for neighbors to schedule one-on-one Zoom meetings with Catholic Charities leadership staff.

Similarly, Commerce Director Lisa Brown has reached out directly to the neighborhood council, according to an email provided by the state. This after Tedd Kelleher, Commerce’s managing director of the Housing Assistance Unit, described the project as “one that there’s not a lot of controversy around” when the Catalyst funding was first announced.

“This purchase represents one component of what will ultimately need to be a much larger solution to address the needs of Spokane County,” Brown wrote. “As a result this is not an option that can effectively be replaced with other alternatives. This option and those other alternatives will all be necessary to meet the needs in Spokane County.”

Commerce spokesperson Penny Thomas emphasized that the Catalyst Project is “a small slice” of the city’s plan.

“Our expectation is that the city and other public entities would have done due diligence and whatever outreach is necessary to engage the community before putting forward their plan,” Thomas said.

Mayor Nadine Woodward on Tuesday said the relatively short timeline to submit a proposal for Rights of Way funding – initially 10 days before it was extended to 30 – “left very little time and room for any kind of neighborhood engagement for some of these projects.”

“I absolutely understand their concern,” Woodward said.

The Quality Inn is neighbored on South Rustle Street by the Garden Springs Professional Building, owned by the Brumback family. The interests of development firm Brumback Inc. include the QualMed Building, bought in 2019 for $1.2 million ahead of a $16 million renovation into medical offices.

The Brumbacks also own a collective 38,350 square feet of land separating the Quality Inn and the Garden Springs building. Donald “Gib” Brumback, president and founder of Brumback Inc., said the Brumbacks have plans to use that land for 72 garden-style apartments.

With Catholic Charities plans for the Quality Inn, however, Brumback said that housing project, another in the Sunset Hill area and some plans he had for retail development in the neighborhood, are on hold.

“What’s going to happen to us is our tenants, when their lease is up, many of them may or will leave. People are not going to be attracted to lease here because of that,” Brumback said. “If we have the low-barrier homeless people here, no retail people are going to want to lease and open up a retail space down there.”

Other developers of potential projects in that neighborhood also are considering pulling out, he said. Asked whether that could be construed as a warning, Brumback said “you can’t build projects nobody is going to lease.”

“The bad situation is when you go to the low-barrier, the homeless housing, and all that is what’s going on at what they call Camp Hope,” he said, “and what they would be doing is moving Camp Hope and moving all the problems – and they’re bad – to West Hills.

“People need help,” he continued, “but it’s in a situation that you cannot destroy neighborhoods.”

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