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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

West Hills neighbors sue city, Empire Health and Catholic Charities over Sunset Highway homeless housing projects

Catholic Charities plans to buy the Quality Inn, at 4301 W. Sunset Blvd., to use as an emergency supportive housing project for singles and couples. West Hills neighbors are suing over the proposal, among other homeless housing plans for the area.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Residents in Spokane’s West Hills Neighborhood are suing the city, Catholic Charities Eastern Washington and the Empire Health Foundation in an attempt to stop a number of proposed homeless housing projects from coming to their neighborhood.

Neighbors represented by Spokane for Safe Neighborhoods, which registered with the state last week as a nonprofit, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Spokane County Superior Court. In addition to the city, Empire Health and Catholic Charities, the lawsuit also names a pair of limited liability corporations owned by Catholic Charities and an Empire Health-owned LLC as defendants.

Specific projects outlined in the lawsuit include Catholic Charities’ plans to transform the Quality Inn into emergency supportive housing for 100 to 120 adults and an Empire Health proposal for 75 tiny home-like shelter units to house 125 people.

The lawsuit also identifies plans by Catholic Charities to use property along South Government Way, near West Seventh Avenue, for a homeless housing facility and administrative offices. Molly Sanchez, housing communications manager for Catholic Charities, said the complaint is likely referring to the proposed site for St. Agnes Haven, a 48-unit affordable housing community for families.

“Catholic Charities has been in communication with the West Hills Neighborhood Council about this project since last spring,” Sanchez said in an email, “and currently we are working to secure funding.”

The Quality Inn and tiny home village projects were among several included in a funding application submitted by the city for $24.3 million available through the state Department of Commerce. The funding is designed to help move the hundreds in the Camp Hope homeless encampment near Interstate 90 into better living situations.

The lawsuit alleges the city, Catholic Charities and Empire Health “have failed to initiate or participate in any governmental and public process.” Neighbors also have accused the three involved of concentrating too many homeless housing projects in a single neighborhood.

The lawsuit argues the projects should be classified as “group living” under the city code, as opposed to “community service,” and therefore require conditional use permits. Similarly, the lawsuit argues environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act is needed in these cases given that “any group living facility can have significant adverse impacts on the environment.”

William Hagy, president of Spokane for Safe Neighborhoods, said in a statement that while the city needs facilities that support the homeless, government processes and standards have to be followed.

“There is a role for government here,” said Hagy, who is also the chair of the West Hills Neighborhood Council. “The city of Spokane cannot just say, ‘We give up. Put them anywhere, just get them out of downtown.’ And that basically is what our city government is doing.”

Spokane for Safe Neighborhoods – represented in this case by Spokane law firm Dunn & Black – are seeking an injunction as well as a judicial declaration supporting their claims, according to the lawsuit.

“You can’t take a small neighborhood and make it absorb a huge homeless population,” Hagy said. “And even if you disagree about that, you can’t break the law, and that is what the city and Catholic Charities are doing by moving forward with their plans without a conditional use permit or any environmental review under SEPA.”

The Department of Commerce has earmarked funding for Catholic Charities’ Catalyst Project to buy the Quality Inn at 4301 W. Sunset Blvd. Catholic Charities representatives said late last month they expected to close on the financing for property acquisition by Monday, while they are anticipating an operator contract with the state for up to 20 years.

In a statement, Catholic Charities said the lawsuit is “frivolous and completely without merit.”

“We see it not only as a suit against Catholic Charities, but a suit against the poor, the vulnerable and the homeless of our community,” the statement reads. “More than 20% of people in our region live at or below the poverty line. It is our sacred obligation to stand with them and stand up for them.

“We will do exactly that in addressing this lawsuit, no matter how much time or money it may take.”

Meanwhile, Empire Health is not pursuing the shelter village proposal at this time, said President Zeke Smith, who declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, as the foundation’s legal counsel still is reviewing it.

“We’re not in active discussions with anybody about that,” he said.

While the proposal was included in the city’s plan submitted to Commerce, Smith said it was lower on the funding priority list. The project was classified among those that did not have unanimous support from regional jurisdictions involved in putting the plan together.

Nevertheless, Smith said he still believes tiny homes “could be a viable option” in housing the city’s homeless population.

“Whether that site that we own is the right location is further down the road,” he said. “It’s premature to try to move forward on that particular project at this time.”

City spokesman Brian Coddington said the city received notice of the lawsuit Thursday and is reviewing its contents.

The Department of Commerce was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit identifies the Quality Inn site and other Sunset Highway-area properties owned by Empire Health and Catholic Charities through their respective LLCs: Dignity Housing and Dignity Housing II (owned by Catholic Charities), and Sunset Health (owned by Empire Health). The properties owned by Sunset Health include the 3000 W. Sunset Blvd. site occupied by Ascenda, a nonprofit sober living facility.

Smith said Empire Health intends to continue Ascenda’s tenancy “for the foreseeable future.”