This editorial was published by the Everett (Wash.) Herald.
Our notions of homelessness don’t frequently bring to mind images of school children being among those without secure and stable housing.
The face of homelessness is changing, however. Families with children — and teens on their own and without families — are among the homeless; here in Snohomish County and, especially so in Everett.
Since its last count for the 2017-18 school year, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction recently reported that the number of homeless students in the Everett School District has grown from 1,266 students to 1,315 as of the 2018-19 school year. At each grade level, about 90 to 100 students are counted as homeless by the school district, including 650 among grades from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
Most of those counted as homeless are those “doubled-up” in other homes, but significant numbers can’t count on family and friends to provide even that degree of shelter. Nearly 100 were living in hotels, some 115 were in shelters and 151 were listed as “unsheltered.”
But even those living doubled-up with other families are not always in a stable environment that supports a good outcome for their education. A report last year by Schoolhouse Washington, a nonprofit advocate for the estimated 40,000 homeless students in the state, found that those homeless students living with other families showed academic outcomes and graduation rates that were as poor as those who were in motels, in shelters or were unsheltered.
The desire to improve academic outcomes for homeless students prompted a decision by the Everett School District and its school board last year to surplus and lease a 3-acre parcel of property to Housing Hope — a Snohomish County-based nonprofit that builds a range of housing and shelter for families and individuals experiencing homelessness — to provide housing to homeless students in the school district and their families.
Initially, Housing Hope sought to use a city ordinance that allowed such “supportive housing” projects in the city’s zoning for single-family residences with review by an administrative law judge. The same process was used to permit Clare’s Place, which now provides 65 units of housing operated by Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services on 12th Drive SE off Evergreen Way.
Opposition to the proposal and the process last year resulted in a moratorium, then a repeal of the ordinance that returned review of such projects to the city’s planning commission and final say to the city council. But even before the ordinance’s repeal, Housing Hope elected to seek a rezone for part of the property. The project now is before the city council and gets a public hearing, scheduled for Wednesday.
The project would provide a total of 44 units of housing on about three acres that Housing Hope has dubbed the Sequoia Upper Field, because of its proximity to Sequoia High School, the district’s alternative high school program. The field was the site of a grade school torn down by the district in the 1950s and used as an athletic field by students at the nearby middle school that later became Sequoia.
Housing Hope will use the housing primarily for homeless students attending Sequoia, some students of which have their own grade-school-age children. The housing also will be open to other Everett district students and other homeless students in the county as space is available.
From the start, Housing Hope has sought comment and taken into account the concerns of neighbors in the Port Gardner neighborhood, designing a project that fits its character and respects its residential qualities. The development will keep the R-1 zoning along Norton Avenue, building single-family homes facing that street. Multi-family housing, requiring an R-3 rezone, will be built along Grand Avenue, adjacent to developments that are in R-3 and R-4 zones.
Housing Hope is using design elements that will blend the housing well with existing homes in the neighborhood, including staggered setbacks from Norton, covered porches, lapped siding and a variety of roof slopes and gables.
The development will have an overall density of 15 units per acre, far below that of nearby multifamily housing where the density is 111 units an acre.
Some neighbors have objected to the loss of the field, a pocket park used by kids, dog walkers and runners, but the field’s status as a park is unofficial and unlikely to continue. The property is zoned R-1, and the city — facing budget deficits even before the pandemic — declined an earlier offer from the school district to purchase the field for development as a park. If Housing Hope doesn’t develop the property, the district — facing its own financial challenges — could sell it to another developer.
Not all private developers would be as attentive to the wishes of neighbors. Housing Hope has sought to provide a balance that serves the greatest number of students while respecting the wishes of the community. Fred Safstrom, executive director of Housing Hope, said that building only single-family homes on the three acres would not have provided enough housing to make the effort worthwhile.
Housing Hope has built a record of trust in the county with a deep portfolio of projects, building attractive and comfortable homes and multi-family dwellings. Its Hopeworks Station, which opened last October, and now provides affordable housing to 102 adults along with supportive programs, recently earned the highest rating from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for the project’s energy-efficient and environmentally friendly design.
Opposition to the project should not be dismissed as typical NIMBY — not in my backyard — objections. Concerns about the amount of review allowed by the initial process were legitimate, and led to a change by the council. And the loss of any greenspace for a neighborhood is more than a disappointment.
At the same time, however, suggestions that there are other places to build such housing — in multiuse zones along busy arterials, for example — ignore the city’s responsibility to encourage housing for families with children that assures safety, equity, fairness and opportunity.
We ask the city council — as it considers the rezone and project — and neighbors as they share their comments with the council, to remember the need that can be served and the care and consideration that Housing Hope has taken in working to serve that need.
It’s true that 44 units of housing won’t come close to meeting the housing needs of more than 1,300 homeless students in Everett. But the project can help provide stable and happy homes for 44 families, homes that will support the education and eventual graduation of Sequoia students and others who have returned to school to build futures for themselves and their families.
The education — and health and happiness — of 44 families will be of immense and lasting benefit to Everett.