Spokane’s former director of housing and homelessness says the city isn’t developing affordable housing quickly enough and may be leaving millions of dollars in federal grant funding on the table.
In a Sept. 30 memo to Mayor Nadine Woodward and City Administrator Johnnie Perkins, John E. Hall III offered seven pages of advice for how the city could better address its housing and homelessness crisis.
Hall, who has more than 20 years of experience working on affordable housing at the federal, state and local level, resigned at the end of September after spending just three months as Spokane’s director of Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services. His predecessor, Cupid Alexander, led the new division for less than a year.
“The following unsolicited observations are aimed to be non-partisan, honest and respectful,” Hall wrote in his memo.
Some of Hall’s recommendations were fairly minor. For instance, he says the mayor should hold weekly news conferences and notes that the name of Spokane’s Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services Division is confusingly similar to its Community Housing and Human Services Department.
Other observations within the memo are more significant.
For instance, Hall criticizes city staff for acting without “a lack of urgency to be results driven during this homelessness crisis” and adds that they “seem to be focused on a life-work balance which is paradoxical as their career is aimed to help vulnerable populations with urgent situations.”
Hall notes that the Spokane City Council in August awarded $10 million in affordable housing for 11 projects that will create more than 200 housing units. The city has 26 affordable housing projects planned that haven’t been built, Hall said.
City spokesman Brian Coddington strongly defended city staff. He said that many employees within Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services are new and still “getting up to speed.”
“The staff and mayor’s office share the frustration that things can’t move even faster,” Coddington said.
Coddington also noted that in the last three years, the city has expanded its network of homeless shelters and seen a wealth of new housing development.
“There’s been a lot of work done,” he said, “and it’s all been lost in the unfortunate criticism that the city staff continues to take.”
Hall also said the line between the City Council and the mayor’s office has become blurred. In Spokane, the mayor’s office serves as the executive branch while the City Council has legislative authority.
“The City’s Charter for a strong mayor form of government is being chipped away,” Hall wrote. “The mayor within any party affiliation should be empowered to devise programs, budgets and initiatives subject to the Legislative adoption.”
Hall didn’t provide any specific examples of how the City Council is chipping away the mayor’s power.
“I’m not really sure what he’s talking about,” City Council President Breean Beggs said. “I think the blurring he’s talking about is a misunderstanding of our particular unique charter and he thinks maybe the mayor should be developing policies and council should be approving whatever the mayor proposes.”
Coddington said the mayor agrees with Hall and believes the council is seeking to weaken the power of her office. He pointed to the City Council’s decision to restrict how Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl can use asset forfeiture funds.
Hall’s most notable observations weren’t about city staff or the balance of power between Spokane’s legislative and executive branches.
His most significant critiques center around affordable housing, specifically Spokane’s efforts to secure grants through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Spokane would be getting more money from the federal government if it took full advantage of affordable housing programs, Hall wrote.
“He’s identified millions and millions of dollars that we could be using to build housing that’s long overdue,” Beggs said. “Why we haven’t done it previously is kind of beyond me.”
Hall said the city may be at risk of losing several million dollars through the Community Development Block Grant program if it fails to spend $3 million by May 1.
He wrote that Spokane this spring received a warning from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That warning said the city was failing to spend its grant money “in a timely manner and that continued noncompliance may result in sanctions, including the loss of funds and other corrective actions.”
Community Development Block Grant funds aren’t the only federal dollars at risk, Hall wrote. He said the city may be “leaving $8.5 million on the table” by allocating grant dollars inefficiently and putting Department of the Treasury dollars toward uses that could be covered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Coddington said that, to his knowledge, the city hasn’t missed out on any federal funding for affordable housing.
“The team is still moving forward with each of these to ensure they’re given the time and attention and resources needed,” he said.
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