Jefferson County commissioners mull homeless plan

Task force recommends 300 units by 2024

PORT TOWNSEND — A five-year plan to address the homeless crisis in Jefferson County has been recommended to the Jefferson County commissioners.

A joint oversight board approved the recommendation from the affordable housing and homeless housing task force, a 21-member group that has worked since June to meet Tuesday’s deadline to send the plan to the county.

The oversight board, with members from both the Port Townsend City Council and the Board of County Commissioners, passed the recommendation unanimously during a meeting Sept. 25 at the Cotton Building.

“We got off to a bumpy start, but in the end, I think we worked pretty well together,” City Council member Michelle Sandoval said. “I’m really happy with the amount of work we did in a short time.”

The three-member Board of County Commissioners has until Dec. 1 to revise or approve the plan before it’s referred to the state Department of Commerce.

The state-mandated document requires local governments to file a plan to be eligible for funding.

County Commissioner David Sullivan told the oversight board last week the plan likely will stand.

“We might want to have a public hearing so people can come in and weigh in on things,” Sullivan said.

The 47-page document, “Making Homelessness a Singular Occurrence,” covers 2020-24 and lays the foundation for identifying not only those in need but community partners who can respond.

It also defines what would be considered a success, and it provides recommendations to the state.

If it’s fully implemented, the document says there should be an increase of 300 safe housing units by Dec. 31, 2024. They would include 162 apartments, 30 new Habitat for Humanity homes, 28 safe beds (16 hostel and 12 respite), 40 safe placements for seniors in 20 senior RV units, 20 tiny homes that serve at least 20 people and 20 safe beds in two host homes and multiple host families to house youth.

Sandoval said the statistics, including those turned away from temporary housing as families, or victims of domestic violence, are powerful.

“This is not a very easy public document, but this was our first task,” she said. “We will be taking all the information we’ve learned and putting it into a more public-friendly document.”

The primarily source of funding is the federal low-income housing tax credit program, but the plan says “it tends to favor significantly more dense housing options than are permitted in Jefferson County at this time due to lack of wastewater treatment facilities needed to support higher density development.”

Two state laws — House Bill 1570, passed in 2017, and House Bill 1406, passed earlier this year — have provided additional ways for local governments to access funds, Sullivan wrote in the plan.

The task force identified the county as one where developers see too much risk to invest in affordable housing based on smaller returns.

It also found zoning to favor single-family development over multi-family.

The plan cited statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau that said 12.8 percent of county residents live below poverty level, about even with the statewide number and below the national figure of 14.6 percent from 2013-17. It found the state numbers aren’t comparable to national figures because they come from different sets of data.

“We recognize that homelessness is driven by a complex set of factors: poverty, lack of education/training, lack of jobs, behavioral health issues and addiction are key factors,” the report says. “Additionally, the lack of housing and the increase in monthly rental fees have left many without a place to call home.”

The task force singled out the elderly and youth as vulnerable populations, the former due to Social Security income and the latter due to various factors the group identified as abuse, family conflict, rejection due to sexual identity or family poverty.

It cited self-reported statistics from the state Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction that showed 75 students from the Port Townsend, Chimacum and Quilcene school districts admitting to “couch surfing” due to homelessness during the 2015 academic year.

Those same studies showed 96 students from the three school districts identified themselves as homeless during the 2017 academic year.

Among its recommendations to the state, the task force wants to increase state and federal funds for affordable housing, explore the possibility to increase density for rentals in rural areas and to support Urban Growth Areas and Limited Areas of more intense rural development.

“By quickly identifying and engaging on all people experiencing homelessness, prioritizing homeless housing for people with the highest needs and operating an effective and efficient homeless crisis response system that swiftly moves people into stable and permanent housing while providing services, we can move closer to ending homelessness in Jefferson County,” the report says.

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Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at [email protected].

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