The one issue that generates the most intense discussion in Edmonds is housing. Residents and city officials have debated for years the issues related to how and where people should live — from housing density to homelessness to affordable housing — and how much the city should help those who struggle to afford to live here.
This is the third in a series of My Edmonds News reports on our housing debate and its human impacts. This story profiles two projects that a nonprofit and two community partners plan to bring to the area. You can read Part 1 of our series here and Part 2 here.
This is a “field of dreams.” The former ballfields next to the former Scriber Lake High School are slated to become stable housing — for 50 Edmonds School District students and their families.
The site of proposed housing for homeless students and their families is located at approximately 19200 56th Ave. W. in Lynnwood.
Housing Hope’s project for students who are homeless
The Edmonds School District and its partner in the project, Housing Hope of Snohomish County, believe this housing for homeless students and their families will be the first of its kind in the nation. The goal: to meet the housing needs of students and their families who do not have a “fixed, regular, nighttime residence.” In Edmonds, 615 students do not have that stability. The district says the COVID pandemic has added about 100 new students to this list in the past year.
Assistant Edmonds School District Superintendent Greg Schwab said that “if I’m a student in Edmonds and lose my housing and have to move, we want to keep their school stable; even if a family has to leave the community (for housing or work), we want to keep these families local if we can; it’s the one thing in their life that’s stable.”
It is also federal law, under the 35-year-old McKinney-Vento Act signed into law by President Reagan. The law says that “students experiencing homelessness have the right to attend either their local area school or the school they were enrolled in when they were last permanently housed. They also have the right to transportation to the school of origin.”
Of the 615 children in Edmonds who fall under the provisions of that federal law, the school district reports that:
– 2% live in cars, parks or other places not meant for shelter
– 9% live in shelters
– 5% “couch surf” with friends or family
– 14% are in hotels/motels
– 45% (263) now live out of district, and are bused to their original Edmonds school
– Others are “doubling-up” — two or more families live together
The “field of dreams” housing, said Dr. Sally Guzman, the district’s family and community engagement coordinator, will have a huge impact on those families who often “don’t know where they are going to sleep every day, don’t know if they will have access to a bathroom or a place to do homework.” These are all stresses, she adds, that most of us don’t know about.
I wanted to talk to one of these families, but the district — concerned for their privacy — declined. Guzman described one family with two elementary-aged children, living from hotel to hotel, unable to rent because of prior financial problems, who wound up living in their car, going from parking lot to parking lot, wherever they felt safe. The parents took the kids to a school bus stop for pick up. It was important for them, said Guzman, to keep their children in a school they knew, a place they felt comfortable and safe.
The Housing Hope project on the Cedar Valley Ballfields is the school district’s second effort to create housing for vulnerable students. Three years ago, the City of Lynnwood and the school district considered buying the Rodeo Inn, on Highway 99. Following a property inspection, the Lynnwood City Council voted not to proceed, deciding it would cost too much to tear down the structure and rebuild it.
The Edmonds School Board voted in December 2021 to declare the approximately 2.2 acres of property adjacent to Cedar Valley Community School as surplus and then lease it to Housing Hope.
Assistant Superintendent Schwab says district data on the impact of homelessness on students is clear. In 2021, 84% of the district’s high school seniors who were not homeless graduated on time; only 51% of homeless high school seniors got their degree on time. Just 14% of seniors who were not homeless had more than two days of absence a month; 40% of homeless seniors were absent more than two days every month.
Often, said Guzman, “families haven’t done anything to put themselves in these situations… one thing can just teeter them off the edge.” (Click here to find out how to help the district and students.)
The Scriber Lake housing site is almost two acres, just west of Highway 99 in Lynnwood and next door to Cedar Valley Community School. The district owns the land and is leasing it to Housing Hope at $1 a year for 75 years. Right now, it is a practice field for Pacific Little League; the district will help find a new location for the little league.
Two years ago, Housing Hope had offered the Everett School District a similar project on a field adjacent to the alternative high school there. But, said Housing Hope CEO Fred Safstrom, the neighborhood was “fearful of change and at the end of the day… we could not go forward.”
Housing Hope is a Snohomish County nonprofit, founded 35 years ago. It owns and operates 541 low-income/affordable apartments in 23 locations, but until the Edmonds Schools offered its land, Housing Hope had never expanded into the South Snohomish County. Click here to see their plans for South County.
For the Scriber Lake housing project, Lynnwood amended the city’s Comprehensive Plan and made a zoning change. Safstrom said the project received “strong support from the planning commission, the mayor and city council.”
There will be 52 units – all for families – and they will include two-, three- and even some four-bedroom units. The Edmonds School District will refer families already on its eligibility lists. They must meet federal and state qualifications. Rents would be set so that no family pays more than 30% of their income.
Safstrom shares the school district’s number-one objective, that “these students will find success in school”. Guzman added: “We’re seeing where families have to go further and further away from us and make tough choices moving away from support systems for their job…to afford housing.”
Schwab summed up: “It’s the right thing to do, to support our students and families; keeping them in the community and the schools where they’re known is one of the best things we can do.”
Housing Hope at Edmonds Lutheran Church
Housing Hope is farther along on what may become the first significant low-income/affordable housing project ever in Edmonds. This is to be built at Edmonds Lutheran Church, on 236th Street Southwest across from Safeway. The group plans 52 apartments. They held an open house in June for neighbors and the congregation.
The church sold a vacant lot next door at below-market cost to Housing Hope. During the open house in June, Pastor Tim Oleson told us: “It’s been such a vision for this congregation. For a long time, our mission is to bring hope and healing to the community and the world. We know how important stable, secure housing is for hope and healing.” Oleson added that his 200 members understand the stability that comes when “you don’t have to worry about am I going to be able to buy food next week, or do I have to worry about the rent?”
Housing Hope still has what CEO Fred Safstrom calls “major hoops to clear” on the $27 million Edmonds project. The nonprofit has submitted plans to the city; they are under review. He is confident that the apartments will conform to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, adding that multifamily zoning already exists in the area. A previous developer had already installed sewer and water connections for a project that was halted. Housing Hope would like to complete underground utilities before the end of the year. It could be open for tenants in early 2024.
There will be seven one-bedroom/one-bath units; 32 two-bedroom/one-bath units and 13 three-bedroom/two-bath apartments in four buildings. The units are all intended for families with children.
Housing Hope says it can easily fill these units, which are described as “permanent supportive housing.” Half the units will be for families coming directly out of homelessness; the other half for low-income families priced out of the private market. The goal is to help families stabilize, then move on to other housing opportunities.
Permanent supportive housing
Here’s an example of “permanent supportive housing” – basically, it’s affordable housing with voluntary support services for tenants. This is Housing Hope’s Monroe Family Village. It’s 48 units – one-, two- and three-bedrooms. A total of 133 people live here, families only. The units are built around a central, grassed-in courtyard to help create a sense of community.
Of the units, 10 are for people coming directly out of homelessness — their first stop on the way to what they hope will be stability. The other 38 are “permanently affordable” units for people who have low incomes.
Housing Hope believes its checks and balances keep this community safe. “You can’t be a sex offender and live in our facilities.” Communications Director Joan Penney said. That also means, she added, no one convicted of drug manufacturing, assault or violent crimes can move in. “Guns, right now,”,Penney said, “our policy is we don’t allow them. We know they get in sometimes and we deal with it.” Some of the people who move in are still in drug/alcohol recovery. But she insists they don’t allow anybody to deal drugs; “we watch for that,” she added, “and actually so do our tenants.” The projects are well lit, have security cameras and security patrols as needed.
How well do the background checks and the precautions work? “When did you see us on the news last?” Penney asked. “It works pretty good, it works pretty good.” I checked and did not find any news stories related to safety at Housing Hope properties.
Housing Hope and the Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO) screen all tenants. Rachel Wilkinson Downes, strategic initiatives manager for Housing Hope, said that those coming here directly from homelessness have passed an extensive vetting process. They first must qualify for one of the units; the county does a vulnerability assessment; then HASCO gives them a rental voucher. Incoming families are matched with a support coach, and an education/employment specialist. These staffers will follow a family’s transition and support their progress, as long as they live in the Housing Hope apartment.
“We don’t know what the family is walking in with,” said Downes, “but we do know that at that point in time they are one of the most challenged groups of people in Snohomish County.” The immediate goal: find out what led to being homeless; stabilize the family. Do they have an active substance abuse problem, do they have a job, are they in school? Once the family settles in, Housing Hope says it works first to make sure their basic needs — food, safety, health and school enrollment — are met. They sign them up for state and federal support programs.
A variety of support services exist at all Housing Hope apartments. The community room doubles as a meeting room and classroom. This is where the nonprofit’s ‘College of Hope’ holds classes – life skills – everything from basic cleaning, cooking, creating a safe home environment, financial management, how to be a good renter, paying bills, homeownership – to what Downes calls the most popular class – parenting.
The coaches and the support staff work with tenants as long as they live in Monroe Village. Housing Hope also brings in medical staff regularly, mental health counselors, as well as the education and job specialists. There is an apartment manager on site. “People don’t get out of this alone”, Downes said.
Next door is a children’s room, where parents leave their kids while they take classes. Some of those who live here have gone on to be counselors themselves. Downes described a single mom, raising her son, who still lives in Monroe Family Village and is now in grad school online, working to become a counselor.
Most people in this apartment complex earn less than 50% of the area’s median income, which is $89,243 for a household in the county. They are supporting a family on less than $45,000 a year. Countywide, there are only seven vacancies out of 1,382 Housing Hope apartments.
Tenants coming straight out of homelessness may pay no rent until they get established. Those families also receive a subsidy to pay for utilities. Tenants with low incomes can pay as much as $1,714 a month, plus utilities. But, Housing Hope says the average rent for July is $507 a unit. The goal is that families here pay no more than 30% of their income for rent.
Once a family has stayed in a Housing Hope project successfully for one year, they are eligible for “housing choice” vouchers that will allow them to try to find and stabilize their current affordable rent in the private market. The average stay is two-and-a-half years.
Housing Hope believes this model can be replicated anywhere in the county. The people I interviewed believe they offer a way out of homelessness, and give low-income families stable homes. They also say that in these apartment communities, as families learn the skills they need, they begin to help each other to build a better life. One person called it the “secret sauce” of Housing Hope – fostering compassion and empathy as families grow.
“It’s not perfect, it’s not a straight line, it zigs and zags like all of our lives,” Joan Penney summed up. “It’s a work in progress… and a lot of people are healing from something… and when you look at a lot of it, this is a healing place…we want all of our places to be that way.”
— By Bob Throndsen