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Shawn Vestal: In the midst of a housing crisis, Mayor Woodward leaves millions on the table


About a month ago, a federal housing official sent a letter to Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, all but begging her to develop a plan to spend $6 million in federal funds meant to address affordable housing and homelessness.

The Department of Housing and Human Services had offered that money to Spokane a year ago, under the American Rescue Plan Act, part of an overall $5 billion allocated for cities available to buy or build affordable housing, provide rental assistance, offer services to prevent or eliminate homelessness, and other uses.

As of Sept. 15, HUD was still waiting for Spokane to act like it wanted the money.

“The need for … services, shelter and housing in communities across the country is urgent and growing, and it is critical for (these) resources to be deployed expeditiously,” wrote Marion Mollegen McFadden, HUD’s principal deputy secretary for community planning and development.

Imagine being offered $6 million to address a pressing need for your constituents – and then having to be begged a year later to please, please, please take our $6 million.

This is only one representative example of the Woodward administration’s tendency to ignore, mismanage or fail to seize on opportunities to address housing and homelessness. These failures were enumerated in blistering detail by the recently departed head of the Department of Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services, John E. Hall, in an exit letter. The letter included the HUD letter above, and other similar communications.

Hall, who was on the job for a mere three months before leaving for another position, offered an evaluation of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the department he led. He made a variety of different points and presented them politely and in a productive spirit, but his critique of the lost opportunities to address housing and homelessness problems in Spokane is brutal.

In some passages, Hall pointedly lays the blame for this at the feet of the city staff.

But that is a very long way from where the buck stops.

Hall’s letter details the above-mentioned $6 million in unclaimed funds – which might now be “at risk of being lost,” he wrote. Worse still, the city’s approach to spending some federal funds means it’s “leaving (another) $8.5 million on the table” in further HUD funding.

This was one example of several. Hall said the city should be considering a federal loan program – repayable out of future federal funding allotments – that could bring $15 million more to “meet the urgent needs of the community,” he wrote.

In addition, another $5.4 million that has flowed to the city from a different grant program – also available for housing support – has built up, unspent, in city coffers for three years running.

“This funding can be used to preserve and/or create affordable housing, provide down payment and closing cost assistance to first-time homebuyers, as well as tenant-based rental assistance, among other uses,” Hall wrote. “In the last three years, nothing has been done.”

There’s more. The city is out of compliance with the requirements for another big multimillion-dollar pot of federal money that could go toward housing needs, Hall wrote. And even in an area where the city has budgeted and approved money for housing projects – the projects have stalled at the starting gate.

“For instance, City Council awarded $10 million in affordable housing funding on Aug.1 for 11 projects to yield nearly 220 units of housing,” he wrote. “These projects, along with 15 others, have not been executed to date.”

All in all, Hall’s letter paints a picture of an administration that is failing – through some combination of inexperience, mismanagement, understaffing, and philosophical indifference – to seek and deploy millions and millions of dollars available to address a crisis.

The mayor’s spokesman, in a news story Thursday, defended the city against the criticisms, and particularly defended the staff involved in these issues at City Hall. He noted that Spokane hasn’t yet lost any funding.

But the problems enumerated by Hall, even if they grow from a staffing crisis or lack of urgency among the staff, as he suggested, are the ultimate responsibility of the mayor, and they fit into a pattern of her unwillingness to seek concrete solutions.

Last year, for example, other cities in Washington lined up to apply for state funding offered to buy properties for housing projects. Vancouver got $5 million for a shelter. A West Side nonprofit got $25 million for permanent supportive housing.

Spokane didn’t apply.

As the focus and attention around homelessness has been directed toward Camp Hope, it’s easy to forget that it remains a citywide problem, and a citywide problem that has reached this stage through chronic inaction. Camp Hope represents a lot of people – but it’s far from the entire population of unhoused people.

And the people living on a razor’s edge – unable to afford an apartment, waiting months for subsidized housing, a paycheck away from their own personal emergency – are at risk of becoming tomorrow’s homeless people in a market with far too few affordable options.

What do you say about a government that, when facing a need of this magnitude, must be begged to accept money for solutions?

Whatever you say about it, don’t say it’s the staff’s fault.

The buck stops upstairs.

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