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Spokane City Council approves zoning change to allow shelters, ‘community services’ in heavy industrial zones

May 16, 2022 Updated Mon., May 16, 2022 at 10:54 p.m.

The Spokane City Council approved a zoning change on Monday, May 16, 2022, that would allow for a for the opening of a proposed homeless shelter, located at 4320 E. Trent. It would serve adult men and women and operate 24 hours a day.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Spokane City Council approved a zoning change on Monday, May 16, 2022, that would allow for a for the opening of a proposed homeless shelter, located at 4320 E. Trent. It would serve adult men and women and operate 24 hours a day. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Homeless shelters run by public or nonprofit agencies will be allowed in heavy industrial-zoned areas of Spokane until November, at least.

The Spokane City Council approved the temporary zoning change Monday as the city administration continues efforts to set up a shelter at a vacant 32,500-square-foot warehouse on East Trent Avenue, a project whose need has been magnified by the city’s rising homeless population and lack of shelter beds.

The City Council was approached last month with similar legislation presented as an emergency ordinance, which needs a supermajority to pass. The measure failed to muster enough votes.

Monday’s legislation, also an emergency ordinance, passed 6-0, with Council President Breean Beggs absent. The ordinance takes effect immediately and remains in effect until Nov. 7, unless extended or canceled.

A public hearing to evaluate the temporary change is set for July 11.

While Monday’s legislation passed unanimously, a number of council members still have questions surrounding the financials of the East Trent Avenue proposal.

That includes Council members Betsy Wilkerson and Karen Stratton, whose nay votes in April were then enough to reject the initial zoning proposal.

Wilkerson, who chairs the council’s Finance and Administration Committee, reiterated that she voted as she did given the number of unknowns – namely, the operational and lease costs.

Meanwhile, Wilkerson said the city is preparing to renew agreements next month with operators of other existing citywide facilities.

“This zone change has stopped a critical conversation. We’re not talking about cost. We’re not talking about sustainability,” Wilkerson said, later adding, “We got existing providers who are doing great work saying they can’t make it, and now we’re having this other entity that we have no idea what the cost is going to be. So finding funding is going to be an ongoing issue.”

In a statement following Monday’s vote, Mayor Nadine Woodward said the zoning change is one of three steps needed to open the East Trent Avenue shelter, with the other two being the lease and an arrangement with shelter operators.

Woodward said the city is in the final stages of negotiating the lease.

“Sidewalks, alleyway, and fields are not safe or humane places for people,” she said in a news release after the council’s vote. “This zoning change gives the City additional flexibility to offer people a safe place to sleep indoors and support individuals in the next steps in their journey.”

The wording of Monday’s ordinance is slightly different from the measure that failed in April.

Whereas the first attempt limited allowable uses in heavy industrial and planned industrial zones specifically to “only indoor emergency shelters,” the measure adopted Monday allows any “community services” as defined by Spokane Municipal Code.

“Community services” are defined as “uses of a public, nonprofit or charitable nature generally providing a local service to people of the community.” Listed examples include mass shelters, short-term housing when operated by a public or nonprofit agency, libraries, museums, senior centers, social service facilities, ambulance stations and hospices, among others.

Giacobbe Byrd, legislative assistant to Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, said the change was made as the definition was the closest in the zoning code to cover the use of a shelter.

City Administrator Johnnie Perkins said the administration is hoping to have the answers to the council’s financial questions related to the East Trent Avenue shelter by June 6.

That’s when the administration is aiming to approach the council with a recommended shelter provider, associated operating costs and details on the lease agreement, including the monthly cost, terms and obligations to the city.

“We do want to be collaborative,” Perkins said. “We do want to be working with this council, the business community and all of the residents here to make sure that we’re moving this forward on a path that respects the integrity of how taxpayer dollars are used and also respects the integrity of those that are most vulnerable that we’re trying to provide the services to move them forward.”

A request for proposals process seeking potential operators and service providers for the proposed East Trent Avenue shelter was relaunched earlier this month. A restart was needed due to conflicts of interest during the initial process involving Spokane’s Continuum of Care Board, which was tasked with recommending a submitted proposal, city officials have said.

The latest request for proposals is soliciting applications from potential operators and service providers for a facility with an estimated daily minimum usage of 150 beds, capable of scaling to 250 beds based on demand along with additional surge capacity in cases of emergency, such as inclement weather.

The facility also is expected to offer wraparound services, such as case management and access to resources like mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Submissions are due by Thursday.

“I think it’s really important, obviously, that we are scrutinizing costs and doing so really closely, but the costs and the zoning change have no correlation,” Councilman Michael Cathcart said. “We can have two separate conversations on those and get to the bottom of it.”

Eric Finch, interim director of neighborhoods, housing and human services, said the current request for proposals process will have a different review committee, albeit one bound by the same constraints the Continuum of Care Board was before.

Members will include one representative each from the following groups: the Continuum of Care Board; a neighborhood council; the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Board; a business within a quarter-mile of the proposed site; the Spokane Housing Authority; and two service providers who do not respond to the request for proposals.

While the City Council has been promised a clearer picture with the East Trent Avenue shelter, Perkins was unsure Monday whether he would have an update regarding the city’s level of commitment to supporting Catholic Charities’ relocated House of Charity shelter.

Woodward announced during her State of the City address last month the city would support Catholic Charities’ “House of Charity 2.0” project to relocate the House of Charity shelter out of downtown. This aid, she then said, will come through helping the nonprofit find state funding as well as operational support.

Stratton cited the nonbinding letter of interest penned by Catholic Charities that outlines the city’s potential role in greater detail, including a proposal for the city to coordinate with countywide municipalities to finance capital development of House of Charity 2.0 and operational costs over five years.

Between that and the plans along East Trent Avenue, Stratton said the city is “taking on an awful lot.”

“I will support this,” she said of the ordinance, “but I want people to understand that we have no idea what this is going to cost.”

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