BELLINGHAM - Opposition to proposed downtown apartments for homeless and low-income people is gaining steam, and business owners will have a chance to air their concerns at a meeting Tuesday, Aug. 21.
Whatcom County Council member Ken Mann has organized critics who would like to see the project scrapped or at least slowed down. But the division director of Catholic Housing Services said the 42-unit complex will be built at 1100 Cornwall Ave.
State and federal governments should come through with the bulk of funding for the $9 million project, and groundbreaking could be in September 2013, Steve Powers said.
Business owners and residents near the project location worry about crime, personal safety and the threat the complex could pose to downtown commerce.
"Why does downtown always seem to be the home for such projects?" said Jim Clevenger, owner of Klicks Running and Walking, in a July 18 email to the Whatcom County Council.
"Downtown Bellingham has made great progress over the last 15 years, but we continue to fight a perception battle that is only going to get worse with such projects," Clevenger wrote.
Residents of existing Catholic Housing Services apartments have created an atmosphere unfriendly to businesses, some critics said.
The Woods Coffee has a store at 1135 Railroad Ave., in the Washington Grocery Building - one of three Catholic Housing Services buildings, all within five blocks of each other. The coffee shop also is on the same block as the proposed fourth building.
"It has been a mixed bag of experiences, ranging from smokers who refuse to abide by laws to drug addicts who endanger the well-being of children and others," said Wes Herman, owner of The Woods Coffee, in a July 24 email to city and county leaders.
Julie Wilson-Juskevich owns Jake's Barber Shop, three blocks from the proposed building. Her concern arises not from being a nearby business owner but from living in Kateri Court, another of the three Catholic Housing Services buildings.
Wilson-Juskevich said she has witnessed drug use and dealing, and believes residents should be drug tested.
"People don't shop downtown here as much as they used to, and do you think it's going to get any better when they put in this building full of addicts? No," she said.
Of the 42 units, expected to become available in 2014, 20 are reserved for the chronically homeless. Some of them will be addicted to drugs, and a majority likely will have a mental illness.
The housing-first philosophy, currently espoused by Bellingham social service agencies, says having a home gives people the stability they need to manage their addictions and mental illnesses.
Powers told homeless advocates at an Aug. 2 meeting of the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness that some of the critics might not understand the effectiveness of "housing first."
"I think you know what we're doing is taking these problems off the street," Powers said at the meeting. "We really see this as solving problems and making downtown a better place."
Drug use in Catholic Housing Services' apartments might be a consequence of the housing-first philosophy, but when asked to respond to the idea of drug testing, Powers said, "That's pretty outlandish. I don't think I would respond."
But he did say Catholic Housing Services shouldn't be required to hold its tenants to standards different from those of other landlords.
Police calls to Kateri Court, the Grocery Building and a third project, Mount Baker Apartments, aren't all that frequent, Bellingham police said.
"I have found minimal contacts in the last couple of years, and (Catholic Community Services) appears, from a law enforcement perspective, to be managing the properties very appropriately," Police Chief Todd Ramsay wrote in an email to Powers on Aug. 10.
Public criticism of the project peaked in July, after County Council member Mann started canvassing business owners for their thoughts on the project.
"If I hadn't done anything, this project would have sailed through unopposed and without any appropriate community input," Mann said.
Depending on how Tuesday's meeting plays out, the city could decide to withdraw its support, Mann said, or Catholic Housing Services could bend to community pressure and change its plans.
The County Council voted in June to grant the project $550,000, which Mann favored at the time. Mann has made it clear he would like to take that vote back, and he believes a council vote last month to not expand a pool of economic development funds, called EDI funds, to include low-income rental housing effectively blocked $200,000 of the county's grant.
County Executive Jack Louws said that's not necessarily true.
"If (council members) are satisfied with moving forward with the project as directed, we'll use the EDI funds for what they said," Louws said. "If they had a change of mind on it, I anticipate they would have to take a vote to articulate the wishes of the full council to me."
Mann said he won't necessarily remain opposed to a building project that is, in any case, on the city's turf.
"When the surrounding businesses and residents, along with the (Bellingham) council and mayor ... are comfortable with your project, you will have my support," Mann wrote July 21 in an email to Powers.
ATTEND THE MEETING
What: Listening session for downtown business owners on proposed Cornwall Avenue housing project.
When: 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21.
Where: Spark Museum, 1312 Bay St. in Bellingham.
More information: Contact Catholic Housing Services Division Director Steve Powers, 360-671-0715 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 360-715-2266.