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
”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
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
“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
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
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
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.