By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Facing a self-described “passionate” crowd in North Delridge tonight, Downtown Emergency Service Center executive director Bill Hobson did not deny Delridge Neighborhoods District Council chair Mat McBride‘s assessment of the meeting’s intent:
“In one of your early comments, you said you came here to have a discussion, but it’s less of a discussion and more of an explanation,” observed McBride – an explanation from Hobson that if funding comes through, DESC intends to build a 75-apartment complex for mentally ill homeless people in North Delridge, whether area residents like it or not.
McBride’s assessment, stark as it was, came as the standing-room-only meeting, more than 50 packed into the Delridge Library‘s small public-gathering room, started to calm from a crescendo of shouting and accusations – more between participants of opposing views, than directed at the DESC leader, though Hobson too had to raise his voice at more than one point to get a word in edgewise.
He had begun with an explanation of his agency, and then of the project, while also saying, “This doesn’t have to be the last public meeting” about it. From sheltering, DESC moved into the housing business starting in 1995. He briefly touched on what is described on the DESC website as a “Housing First” philosophy – rather than expecting their clients to get their lives in order before becoming eligible for housing, they are put into housing first – then offered services to deal with their challenges, which might include mental illness and/or substance abuse.
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The agency operates eight projects (unofficially Google-mapped above by McBride) and hopes to break ground soon on a ninth at 105th and Aurora in North Seattle; Delridge would be its tenth. DESC already had initiated the purchase of lots in the 5400 block of Delridge before going public with news of its plans, mainly by contacting representatives of community groups including the North Delridge Neighborhood Council; we covered the June 13th meeting of NDNC, and that’s where we heard about it for the first time, including information from chair Karrie Kohlhaas in our meeting report, then contacting DESC the next day for an in-depth followup. Here’s more of what Hobson said tonight about the project:
In our interview with him two weeks ago, Hobson had told WSB that DESC thought it might be able to help Delridge in its process of “stabilizing.” Tonight’s first question asked, how could this possibly help?
Hobson suggested that DESC had clout on which it could draw, including “fairly good political connections in downtown Seattle” (which drew an audible scoff from one person in the audience), as he listed some of DESC’s board members, including King County Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen, Seattle Police Department Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, and former City Attorney Mark Sidran. (No, none of them live in West Seattle, he acknowledged later.) He also talked about the complex providing “another set of eyes on the street 24/7” because it is staffed around the clock, monitoring “everybody coming into and out of the building.”
Yet, it is not a jail, and residents are not prohibited from leaving. Could they use drugs or alcohol in their own apartments? one attendee asked. Yes, replied Hobson – the monitoring would kick in if, for example, someone “loaded” tried to go out and cause trouble. Residents have to sign “Good Neighbor” agreements, he said, and visitors are held to an even higher standard of behavior – but otherwise, the residents are just tenants who sign leases and live their lives, albeit with support services on site. No curfews, no forced medication.
Will you have sex offenders living there? one person asked. Hobson committed to barring that “if it’s what (the neighborhood wants).” But as other suggestions piled up, implying that the tenants might be a danger to those living nearby, he began to bristle, asking for the opportunity to clear up myths about the mentally ill.
It’s not only that neighbors fear a threat from the tenants, it was suggested – they also worry that this is not the right place for vulnerable people, since Delridge still grapples with problems including drug dealing and other types of crime.
Another issue: The dramatic increase in density that this project would bring to the block it’s on; though the DESC proposal is within the area’s current zoning, the lots they’re planning to buy hold only a few housing units now. “We are motivated to end homelessness,” Hobson said. “It is about as expensive to build a 20-unit (building) as a 75-unit building.” Beyond zoning, he added, the city has guidelines for what percentage of housing in a given area can be geared for those of extremely low-income – below 30 percent of the median income – and he said this project, to fit those guidelines, could have had up to 77 units. Staffing, too, is a cost they have to handle, he said: “In order to staff our buildings the way we want to staff them, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, costs a lot of money. If we have more units, that money comes in via rent subsidies.” He did later confirm this is the lowest-current-density neighborhood into which DESC has sought to place a project.
DESC was accused of not reaching out to the non-English-speaking residents likely to be affected by their project; information about tonight’s meeting was distributed only in English. And when Hobson tried to say that his agency didn’t have the resources to distribute information in multiple languages, it was flung back at him that he had earlier talked about DESC’s clout. NDNC members on hand protested that they tried to reach out to other cultures in the neighborhood, and certainly they, as an all-volunteer group, had fewer resources than an agency engaged in “multi-million-dollar housing projects.”
And yet a few moments of the harshest criticism came not from attendees, toward DESC, but inbetween attendees. One man called it “insulting and embarrassing” that others were concerned about a building to be inhabited by the mentally ill: “A society is judged on how well it treats its elderly, those in prison, those unable to take care of themselves.” And he even questioned the voiced concern about sex offenders, contending “95 percent” of sex offenses are committed by someone the victim knows. But then he asked a question that others said had been on their mind: “If you are getting rent subsidies, how do you maintain it, so there’s not algae on the siding, trash in the front yard – how are you going to keep your facility clean?”
DESC has a maintenance team with more than 40 people, Hobson replied, inviting attendees to tour its other sites, “take a look at the outside, see how we keep them up.” Two of the buildings are now 15 years old, he noted, adding that “the nature of the public funding we have (involves) 40-year obligations to city, county, and state,” all of which, he said, extensively audit organizations such as his, including onsite visits.
Later in the meeting, NDNC’s Kirsten Smith said she had done something close to visiting DESC sites – she had spoken with neighborhood councils in some of the areas where DESC operates, and asked them about their concerns. Besides being told of “increased ambulance calls,” she did uncover some complaints about landscaping gone awry, she said – Hobson sheepishly confirmed it and said the problems were being addressed – but, overall, said she had found a rather low level of concern, just the occasional tenant found wandering.
NDNC chair Kohlhaas reiterated that concern about tenants was a real issue: “We have a lot of opportunistic crime in this neighborhood … and (DESC tenants) are probably some of the most vulnerable people in our society.” She told Hobson she didn’t want to hear such concerns dismissed as “NIMBYism.” Hobson protested, “You haven’t heard that from us.”
Another attendee, describing herself as “liv(ing) up the hill a ways,” said she volunteers with DESC by giving haircuts to tenants, and finds them “not threatening … I am not scared.”
It’s not the tenants that might be the threat, said a man who identified himself as a bus driver, “but overall, the people you wouldn’t want in your neighborhood increases … (tenants’) friends, people to go to for drugs or alcohol … the main problem that I have is not the 75, but what the 75 attracts. … You say you’ll have security, but they are just ‘door shakers,’ and I don’t want police having to (spend a lot of resources).”
From there, for a time, the orderly progression of the meeting deteriorated into cacophony and raised voices – allegations of classism, why aren’t DESC projects “sited in Madison Park or Magnolia or Queen Anne or Laurelhurst or Windermere,” and then counter-allegations from a project supporter, who was in turn shouted down once he admitted not living along Delridge, but instead to the west on 30th SW. Eventually once it started concentrating to a back-and-forth between two people, someone seated between them suggested they go outside and talk it out, so the others could continue getting questions answered.
That’s when Delridge District Council chair McBride jumped in. “If you had chosen to have a discussion with us ahead of time,” he told Hobson, the results might have been different. “The area we are in right now is undergoing something of a renaissance. (Community advocates) brought it from something it used to be, to what it currently is. There’s a whole ‘nother step they want to take it to … We’re (finally) able to see where we want to go, where we want to take this place. A lot of the heated passion you see here – people have come in and chosen to live here, and build it (up) .. they feel very personally, very strongly, it’s a place they have invested much into .. By coming in now at this point, you are at a very key juncture for this neighborhood, with a lot of passion about what is coming in, and concerns about what is going forward. … What we’ve seen in this room is a lot of fear and uncertainty and doubts. … and the very thing that you are building, means (less) likelihood of bringing the institutions we need to thrive … (those institutions) are not going to react well to the presence of your facility.”
Another man jumped in to say the ongoing Delridge struggle for more businesses and services is even more critical now
that “the Viaduct is going down and we are locked here, we are going to be shut down … we’re trying to create a hub that we can survive in for 10 or 12 years, we need every bit of resource that we can get into this neighborhood.” What’s missing, such as a grocery store, is “not here because of the [low] median income in this neighborhood – and your project brings it down considerably.”
The arguments didn’t change the fact that, as had been assessed, DESC was not there to “seek permission,” but to try to “work with” the neighborhood, as Hobson put it. But from there, the discussion took a different track – one that might lead to some commercial development on the building’s ground floor.
While a few people left the meeting once Hobson had reiterated, no, they would not change their mind about pursuing the Delridge project, regardless of what they heard, others stayed and looked for opportunities to make lemonade. Could it be a mixed-use development? some wondered. Hobson did not rule that out; permit applications have not yet been filed, and only the roughest of sketches was shown regarding a prospective design – as he had mentioned in our conversation earlier this month, possibly an “L” to get the building wrapped around an “exceptional tree” that needs to be saved, a Himalayan cedar. (The project architect, West Seattle resident John Woodworth, was in attendance; his past projects included the building in which the meeting was being held – Vivian McLean Place/Delridge Library – and the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center.)
Maybe Delridge’s long-desired grocery store could go on the ground floor, it was suggested. More feasibly, an enterprise like the Delridge Produce Cooperative might be perfect, someone else offered. And yet another voice hoped for a bank. Then there was the idea of a pet business.
“What do you guys want?” Hobson asked, later clarifying that his organization could do the recruiting, but would want to hear what the community needed. He said only one of the DESC projects thus far had a commercial tenant – the Aurora project that’s about to break ground on the site of Cyndy’s Pancake House was expected to include a smaller cafĂŠ operated by that restaurant’s owners.
“We need our neighborhood to grow,” was the most plaintive answer.
One way to help ensure that, it was suggested more than once before the meeting ended just in time to beat the library’s 8 pm closure, is to stay involved: Don’t just turn out for this one issue, show up for community organizations’ regular meetings, like the North Delridge Neighborhood Council (second Monday of the month, 6:30 pm, ndnc.org), month in and month out.
Hobson suggested the group might consider “bring(ing) in mental-health professionals, to raise awareness” as his organization’s project theoretically proceeds.
In turn, it was suggested to him that the future Delridge facility might consider utilizing the Recovery Garden at nearby Cottage Grove Park for its intended purpose.
But first – months of process are ahead. Though Hobson did not get to a “what’s next” discussion point before running out of time, he had laid some of that out during our interview two weeks ago – saying they need to secure financing as well as permits, and then, “in the most optimistic scenario, we could be under construction by the end of next summer, probably more like early fall of next year.” (We also confirmed with architect Woodworth that the project would have to go through Design Review.)