When you answer a question, others always follow. That’s what happened when we announced that Snohomish County was buying two hotels to help provide stable housing for people experiencing homelessness.
One of the properties Snohomish County Council has agreed to buy is at Edmonds – America’s Best Value Inn, on Highway 99. The county will pay just over $9 million for the motel of 55 units.
The money comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) pandemic recovery money. Announcing the plan, County Executive Dave Somers said, “We can provide safer places for vulnerable residents, create stability to support community health and wellbeing.
The Best Value Inn and the other hotel the county purchased — a Days Inn near Everett Mall — will provide a total of 129 units for those taking the first step out of homelessness. The concept is called “bridge” housing – designed to provide immediate shelter in a stable environment, with 24/7 support services. These services include health and mental health support, employment services, food aid and counselling.
Readers wanted more answers to these questions:
- How can the county use federal pandemic money for this project?
- How will the county pay for long-term support for these programs?
- Will this increase my property taxes?
- What about security – both to protect tenants and keep crime out?
- What about past gang issues in the area?
- Do tenants with substance abuse issues need to attend treatment programs before moving in?
- How do we know that this “bridge housing” can succeed?
Here’s what we discovered.
Part of ARPA is the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund. It allows cities, towns and counties to use federal money to “deal with negative economic impacts caused by COVID.” This includes providing housing for homeless populations. This is not a new plan. ARPA was signed into law in March 2021. The hotel purchases are only the first time Snohomish County has used federal dollars for homeless housing.
Buying hotels is one thing. Maintaining them and providing 24/7 services means the county is on the hook for the long haul. “It’s a big commitment,” admitted MJ Brell-Vujovic, director of social services for the county. For the Best Value Inn, she estimates that will total about $2 million per year.
Where will this money come from?
The Washington State Legislature in 2020 passed a bill allowing counties to impose a local sales tax increase of 1/10 of 1% to pay for affordable housing and facilities, maintenance and services behavioral health. Snohomish County Council voted to do so in December 2021. Next year, the county says the tax increase will generate more than $23 million. Over five years, the total is estimated at more than $116 million. The money can be used for the construction, operation and maintenance of affordable housing and services for homeless and low-income people.
We know that Best Value Inn will have 24/7 security provided by private contract. Brell-Vujovic told us “someone will be there to make sure the tenants are safe and people who don’t live there don’t come in.” Part of the property management deal, she added, will be to keep those who are not residents out. “The hope and intent and experience in other places,” she said, “is that there are fewer 911 calls.”
Last April, Edmonds police responding to a domestic violence call at the Best Value Inn killed a suspect who they believe attacked officers with a knife.
In January, in this same neighborhood, we reported on a four-month crime wave that Edmonds Police said was “the most violence we have ever seen”. Most of these events took place adjacent to the Best Value Inn at the Emerald Best Motel.
The 110 calls to police and emergency services in four months included 20 arrests for drugs, crimes committed with firearms, stolen cars, violations of court orders and outstanding warrants. Crime in this area, said then-acting deputy chief Josh McClure, is “the number one public safety problem in Edmonds.” Much of it was tied to gang members who began hanging out along Highway 99. Since a police crackdown this spring, crime reports have been on the decline.
That was then. Now, with the county’s motel project, Edmonds Chief Michelle Bennett released the following statement: “The additional oversight and programmatic services the county will bring to this site are significant improvements from a service perspective. social. Those in need of assistance will be significantly better served and Edmonds Police will have more partners to work with to provide a public safety response.
Who decides who can move into homeless housing? Will tenants with substance abuse issues need to undergo treatment before they can live in the units?
The 55 units will only allow adults – singles or couples. No children. Bridging housing is designed as a first step out of homelessness. It’s also called “low-barrier” housing, which can mean that people with substance abuse problems don’t need to be enrolled in treatment to live there.
This strategy states that the first thing homeless people need, especially those with substance abuse issues, is a safe and stable place to live. Brell-Vujovic, the county’s director of social services, put it this way: “It’s really hard to think about anything when you wake up other than finding food, toilets and shelter.” Proponents of the “Housing First” model say that if people don’t have shelter, rehabilitation and any other services are much less likely to work.
But some worry about the Housing First model. County Council Member Nate Nehring introduced an amendment to delay hotel purchases until the county agrees to require anyone moving in to be in processing already. Nehring said he wanted ‘a compassionate approach’ but warned: ‘Storing people with addictions in hotels just to get them off the streets doesn’t address the underlying causes of their situation and doesn’t is not compassionate. My order would require these people to participate in a treatment program. His prescription failed to pass the board.
The county will contract with nonprofits to provide the services – mental health counseling, health assessments, employment and education services, some food supplies, and 24-hour property management and security. 24/7. The county is working on a draft Affordable Housing Business Plan. The county is asking for public input and the deadline for comments is September 15. What happens at Best Value Inn and Days Inn will depend on what’s in this plan.
Can transitional housing or housing first succeed?
The National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness consider Housing First to be very effective in addressing homelessness.
The US Federal Interagency Council on Homelessness identifies the Housing First model as a key strategy.
Yale University researcher Dr. Jack Tsai thinks “Housing First is great because it helps with housing,” but he asks, “What comes second?” Tsai’s team studied 30,000 homeless veterans with alcohol and drug use disorders and found that many continued to have problems once they had housing, but also determined that their drug use had not worsened. Some service providers told Tsai’s study that they “worry about the lack of treatment requirements in programs and whether participants are learning what they need to become independent.”
“We know Housing First is not a panacea,” Tsai said. “Often other services are needed to help them maintain their housing over time.” He says the success of the programs will depend on the “essential” role that case managers play with tenants.
Proponents insist Housing First will save communities money, citing fewer calls to the police and emergency medical care. The National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness stated that “average cost savings to the public range from $900 to $29,400 per person per year after entering a program housing first”. It is a feeling shared by the Everett Herald editorial board, which wrote that investments in other communities in wraparound 24/7 services “have been shown to reduce costs common to unaddressed homelessness, such as calls from the police and assistance, emergency room use, court use, incarceration and more”.
Shannon Burley, who oversees the city of Edmonds’ social services division, calls the county’s purchase of Best Value Inn “a natural fit for Edmonds’ homeless housing needs.” The city and other nonprofits are already using housing vouchers to send people to the Best Value Inn. for a few nights of emergency accommodation. Burley said, “Through partnerships with the county and nonprofit service providers, individuals will receive much-needed comprehensive care and services. This is a great addition for South Snohomish County.
County Social Services Director Brell-Vujovic said “first and foremost, people in need are in your community right now.” Our choice, she adds, “is not between doing something and doing nothing, but doing something in a planned, purposeful and humane way.”
The new deck accommodation at America’s Best Value Inn is scheduled to open early next year.
— By Bob Throndsen