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Planning Commission Votes to Study Permanently Exempting Large Affordable Projects from Public Review

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

November 14 -- While City funding for a halfway house for the mentally ill was turned down last week amid intense public pressure, residents concerned about who moves into their neighborhoods may soon be facing a new battle.

The Planning Commission last week voted 4 to 1 to study a proposal to make permanent a law that allows affordable housing projects of as many as 50 units to be erected in neighborhoods with little public input or permitting.

Yet at a time when the City is facing a severe shortage of housing, especially affordable, at least one planning commissioner and a leading member of the powerful neighborhood group, Friends of Sunset Park, said they are against the four-year-old law that speeds along such projects.

“I’m very conflicted on this,” Commissioner Jay Johnson said at the meeting last Wednesday. “I’m all in favor of affordable housing, but I’m concerned about the backlash from the community on something like this.”

“The people in the community are very sensitive to being cut out of a process,” he said.

Echoing the commissioners’ remarks, Zina Josephs, a vocal board member of the growing Friends of Sunset Park neighborhood group, said she too feels affordable housing needs to be more closely scrutinized -- and permitted -- by the residents and the City.

”It seems ridiculous that someone planning to put a small Bed and Breakfast next to my home would be required to have a Conditional Use Permit (CUP), with public hearing and city notification of nearby neighbors, but someone planning to put a 50-unit affordable housing project next to my home would not be required to do so,” Josephs wrote in an open letter to the commission she said reflected her “personal” views and not those of the group.

Making the law permanent “would give too much authority to staff,” she said, adding that many types of housing – including affordable, transient, congregant and homeless shelters – should require permits, hearing and notification.

The debate over how loud a voice the community, boards and commissions should have in what is permitted in neighborhoods comes a week after more than $450,000 in funding for a halfway house in Sunset Park near several schools was abruptly denied by the City.

Several FOSP members and Sunset Park residents fought against the project on Pearl Street, which seemed destined for the neighborhood if funding was approved by the City.

Scores of residents attended a series of meetings and spoke before the City Council last month to lodge their views, many opposing the project.

Under the law that could be made permanent, the halfway with supportive services for a handful of young mentally ill men and women, could have been approved administratively in the residential neighborhood near four schools.

Yet because the proposed project was defined as a “group home,” Step-Up-On-Second – the service provider behind the project – was denied the money and canceled escrow.

“A group home is usually a single family home,” said Housing Manager Bob Moncrief, noting Step-Up was seeking three units.

“We discovered this so late in the process, it is embarrassing to say the least,” he said. “We usually like to inform the developer early on in the process.”

Although the project was refused on a technicality, housing officials said the community’s concerns were a definite factor in their decision to carefully review the project’s guidelines.

“With what seemed like a great deal of opposition on the part of the community, we wanted to make sure the project was bulletproof from our standpoint,” Moncrief said, acknowledging that City Manager Lamont Ewell echoed that sentiment to Housing officials.

Todd Lipka, Step Up on Second’s executive director, lamented the loss of the site.

“We knew this was a bit unique in the housing definition,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate it got so much negative attention.”

While Lipka understands the community wants some control over what comes is built in their neighborhoods, he said there is an urgent need to help the mentally ill who are just beginning to cope with their disease.

“It’s really a dilemma whenever you try to locate one of these projects,” he said. “What happens is exactly what happens in Sunset Park – they would not want it there.”

Many planning commissioners favored allowing affordable housing projects of as many as 50 units approved administratively.

“The one quick answer is if we don’t have a way of moving projects through quickly then they won’t happen,” said Commissioner Gwynne Pugh. “It’s either they happen or they don’t happen.”

Yet he said he would save that fight for a later time when the commission studies the issue more closely.

City staff said they would like to prepare an item for City Council members to look over the item as early as December 6.





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