Upside of a downturn: new neighborhood housing for the low-income

After the recession killed plans for a boutique hotel in the U District, homeless advocates scrambled to acquire the site for low-income housing.

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LIHI director Sharon Lee, left, and others break ground for the soon-to-be University Apartments.

After the recession killed plans for a boutique hotel in the U District, homeless advocates scrambled to acquire the site for low-income housing.

Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) held a groundbreaking ceremony recently for a new project, the University Apartments. But in a larger sense, the ground was broken well in advance of the ceremony.

Barely a year ago LIHI used its creative savvy to take advantage of the same economic slowdown that has stalled other enterprises public and private. When LIHI executive director Sharon Lee learned that a developer with plans for a boutique hotel had been denied bank loans for the project, she promptly investigated.

It turned out that the hotel plans, which included studio and single-bedroom units with bathrooms and small kitchens, matched almost perfectly the kinds of housing LIHI has been making available for low-income tenants since 1991. And the developer possessed not just the land but the necessary designs and city permits.

LIHI swooped in to purchase the developer's entire package — site, permits, and plans — for a bargain $2.5 million. A bridge loan from the City of Seattle and United Way, both members of the Funders Group of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEH), enabled this speed and efficiency. Bill Block, CEH project director, explained that LIHI was then able to make a single application for project financial support to all key funders, instead of having to apply at United Way one day and King County perhaps months later. "We have these different funds available," said Block, "and LIHI could make its one application, which seven different funders from 17 different funding sources could evaluate together."

The costs of building University Apartments are being covered by HUD, King County, the Seattle Housing Levy, United Way, the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, and Enterprise tax credit equity. A loan from US Bank is financing construction. Said Block, "For the first time, we're all talking to each other. In the old days, with every funding source in its separate silo, this rapid response would have been impossible." So even as a small crowd gathered at the groundbreaking site July 19 to hear local, state, and national officials speak at the podium, behind them a construction scene with a cavernous excavation, barrier fences, and piles of rebar was already bustling with workers in hard hats.

The efficiency of the funding process means that the 63-unit University District building, at 4719 12th Ave. N.E., will open not four or more years from now but in just one year, with low-cost, permanent housing for chronically homeless couples and individuals. Half will be veterans. Support services including mental health counseling and job training, supplied by Sound Mental Health, will be housed under the same roof. On the first floor will be community gathering places including a computer lab, a library, and rooms where tenants can meet with counselors.

University Apartments is an example of a wiser approach to housing disabled or chronically homeless people with low incomes: decentralized sites with inclusive in-house support. As in education and so many other human endeavors, almost anything is better than the factory model that has dominated American organizations for nearly a century.

Many social services have long been divided into separate functions performed at different buildings in a downtown core, as if disabled or disoriented human beings could attach healing features to their lives at a series of stops on a metropolitan assembly line of agencies. A more effective model unites the various kinds of support that people need in one building nested in a residential neighborhood.

A successful new LIHI building that combines small apartment units, community rooms, professional case management, and a set-aside of half the spaces for homeless veterans is already up and running in Lake City. McDermott Place, named for Representative Jim McDermott, opened Dec. 12, with 75 apartments. The building now houses people who had been living on the streets, many disabled by war injuries or mental illnesses. But it isn't always easy to move homeless people who are ill or wounded into affordable housing. Many refuse to seek even the most basic kind of help with solving their problems.

At a U District meeting about homelessness last week, Craig Rennebohm of the Mental Health Chaplaincy at Harborview Medical Center told of a disabled man, homeless since 1989, who is terrified of applying for Social Security. As a result of lifelong trauma and abuse, said Rennebohm, "his brain chemistry interferes with the ability to perceive the world accurately."

For such people, he said, "even the most basic steps of self-care can be fraught with threat." Unless they can gradually develop a relationship with a person familiar with services that have been gathered into a safe, welcoming neighborhood location, it will be impossible for them to venture in, or to stay long after taking the risk of sidling through the entrance.

The integration of a full array of support services with housing makes sense to Rennebohm and to thinkers in many different sectors today. "Coordinated access to services" is second on the Gates Foundation’s list of the five most promising approaches to preventing and ending family homelessness. Research cited by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicates that housing combined with integrated services significantly reduces the number of homeless, mentally ill adults who end up returning to the streets after having been housed.

To this approach Rennebohm adds a strong emphasis on outreach — doing more than building a service center or residence and waiting for needy people to come there. In order to bring the most deeply wounded people from the streets to stability, he said at the meeting, we must go out into those streets and "walk alongside" isolated individuals who are terrified of seeking help. That help should be available in a small, friendly, accessible place in each neighborhood that offers services covering a spectrum of needs.

What Rennebohm calls "low-barrier, no-wrong-door" access to integrated services nearby is far better than an assembly line of piecemeal expedients that a client must travel downtown to use one by one. "The way through is really a socio-cultural shift," he said, "where we begin to own the homelessness in our neighborhood." Only when we own the homelessness near our front doors can we respond more thoroughly and personally than we currently do.

LIHI, active in six counties around Puget Sound, owns or manages more than 1,700 affordable housing units at 50 sites, serving low-income, homeless, and formerly homeless people. McDermott Place in Lake City and The Bart Harvey, housing for senior citizens in South Lake Union, have in-house support services. A dozen other LIHI residences are served through regular visits from case managers specifically assigned to those places.


CEH project director Bill Block and others spoke at the July 19 LIHI groundbreaking.


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