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How public-private collaboration built a home for those with mental illness

Big-time players passed on a stellar housing project because it was too small. But creating a consortium out of friendships and civic goodwill, Plymouth Healing Communities got it done.
Plymouth Healing Communities board member Nancy Smith (left) and Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw cut the ribbon at the new Argonaut House.

Plymouth Healing Communities board member Nancy Smith (left) and Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw cut the ribbon at the new Argonaut House. Credit: Elizabeth Maher

How did a tiny Seattle nonprofit convince, cajole, nag and inspire almost a dozen public and private organizations, including some very big ones, to join together to build Argonaut House?

The housing project in South Seattle was modest and unique. In 2008 Plymouth Healing Communities (PHC) decided to renovate and expand its eight-unit apartment building for individuals living with mental illness by adding six units and new common areas. All residents would live independently and receive outpatient hospital services. Each could also sign up for one-on-one companionship from a trained volunteer or PHC staffer.

Ironically, the modest size of the project held it back. Even PHC board member Nancy Smith (known in Seattle as a force of nature when it comes to housing people with mental illnesses) couldn’t nail down sufficient funding. She carried the architectural designs, the $1.7 million cost estimate and the history of PHC’s innovative, successful companioning program to all possible funding sources in the region.

The response was the same everywhere, she says: “We’re so glad you’re doing this project! But it’s too small.” 

Could a too-small project convince big-time players to help make it happen? 

Short answer: Yes. But it took six years, and “was like a mouse trying to dance with elephants,” says Gary Southerton, Plymouth Healing Communities' executive director.

The project’s most elephantine partner was the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And HUD’s Section 811 application, a city-phonebook-thick form for requesting federal funds to develop housing for people with disabilities, would never have passed muster without the contributions of other project partners: two local banks, attorneys at Kantor Taylor, consultants at Bellwether Housing, commercial contractor RAFN Company and architect Elizabeth Maher. Also in the mix were Boeing’s Employees Community Fund and the core group PHC started out with: Plymouth Church / United Church of Christ, Harborview Mental Health Center and the Mental Health Chaplaincy.

Good old-fashioned civic benevolence fueled some of the effort. Perceiving the Argonaut’s benefit to the community, The Commerce Bank of Washington stepped up, “at the eleventh hour, three days before closing with HUD,” Southerton says, to establish the escrow account required for holding and administering construction funds. PHC’s bank, one of the nation’s giants, would have charged $10,000 for opening and managing the account — an impossible stretch for the budget, says Southerton. Commerce provided the escrow account for free.

This was no trifling gift. “It’s a cumbersome process for them to oversee the distribution, draw funds and approve, and send the paperwork to our HUD lawyer,” says Southerton. The bank’s generosity reflected its recognition, says Brigitte Folz, Harborview’s director of outpatient psychiatry, that “housing is the necessary foundation for recovery from mental illness, whether that means staying out of the hospital or finding employment.”

Yet it was personal relationships, the heart of this story, that played the biggest part. One vital connection was Smith’s 25 years spearheading big affordable-housing projects constructed by RAFN, a large commercial building company. Their past work together eased the way for her to ask RAFN owners to take on what would be, for a sizeable general contractor, “a teeny-tiny project,” she says. RAFN consented and, after patiently waiting for two years while project funding came in, hewed to its original price even though costs had gone up in the interim.

Also vital was the powerful bond between people at Plymouth Church, Harborview and the Mental Health Chaplaincy. The relationship extends back 14 years, to the founding of Plymouth Healing Communities and the House of Healing, a short-term residence where four homeless people released from inpatient psychiatric treatment can gradually recover their equilibrium. Plymouth Healing Communities has acquired four more small-scale facilities since then, which offer independent permanent housing for people living with mental illness. “We do ‘small’ really well,” says Smith. “We can be very present for our residents as a result.”


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Comments:

Posted Tue, May 27, 2:34 p.m. Inappropriate

What an inspiring story. Yes, it is a small project. But demonstrating how the single greatest need in the mental health---housing----can and should be addressed. Next step: a substantial capital construction program for the mentally ill. Substantial means the same money it costs to construct a bridge, highway, or tunnel. Anyone who agrees should let their legislators know.
Abe Bergman

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