The Lynnwood City Council at its June 6 business meeting considered two new proposals from Volunteers of America Western Washington that could be funded through the city’s allotted $10.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
Volunteers of America Western Washington (VOAWW) Senior Director Galina Volchkova asked the council to allocate $500,000 in city ARPA dollars to the VOAWW’s rental assistance and rapid rehousing programs.
According to Volchkova, the need for rental assistance skyrocketed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The VOAWW received $100 million in grants from Snohomish County and was able to assist approximately 15,000 households countywide.
Now, the VOAWW only has $19 million left, and is hoping for more funds to continue assisting local residents. Volchkova said her organization will only be able to help around 2,000 more households with the remaining money, and there are currently 4,000 on the waitlist.
“For the rental assistance criteria, the main one is to have financial hardship, and demonstrate that this hardship was created by the coronavirus pandemic,” Volchkova said. “So it’s not just someone who is lacking income and ability to pay rent. It has to be tied to the coronavirus situation.”
The VOAWW’s program provides up to 18 months’ worth of rental payments per household. These can either be past payments that are overdue, or future payments that residents will not be able to afford.
The average amount that the VOAWW provides is $9,000, and the organization is currently making about 50 payments each day. Countywide, payments being made to Lynnwood households are second only to those in Everett.
The VOAWW asked the council to consider allocating $250,000 to the rental assistance program, which will in turn be matched by Snohomish County.
Councilmember Patrick Decker requested that, should the council agree to allocate ARPA funds to the program, priority be given to residents trying to live within their means, rather than renters living in a penthouse suite who didn’t consider if they would be able to afford their rent long term.
The VOAWW’s Chief Operating Officer Brian Smith then talked about the second request, to fund the organization’s rapid rehousing program.
“[Rapid rehousing] does not target the same population that our rental assistance program does,” Smith said. “The goal is to get someone with a roof over their head who has been on the streets for a given amount of time.”
The rehousing program focuses first on getting people off the streets and into a home, then provides financial assistance for the first year while those people get on their feet.
Volchkova said the program’s unofficial name is “rehoming and retention,” because the VOAWW’s 12-month program strives to help residents keep their housing permanently.
According to VOAWW’s Smith, the program’s financial assistance to an individual decreases every three months, encouraging the resident to maintain a steady income and seek help for any mental or physical health conditions that could hinder them from doing so. This design has been overwhelmingly beneficial, Smith said.
“What we have found is that if you give people pride, if you give people a chance to work hard and succeed, they will,” he said.
The program focuses on housing above employment, Volchkova said, because a homeless person could have three steady jobs, yet still fail a landlord screening for a number of reasons that don’t involve income.
The VOAWW also is requesting $250,000 from city ARPA funds for the rapid rehousing program which Snohomish County will also match.
The rapid rehousing program was met with pushback from Councilmember Jim Smith, who felt that giving homeless people housing that is initially free will fuel a drug habit rather than help individuals get on their feet.
“Almost all homeless people have a drug problem,” Smith said. “It seems to me that the first step would have to be some sort of drug rehabilitation [instead of free housing].”
The council did not vote on either proposal Monday night and plans to revisit the discussion at a later meeting.
In other business, the council received the results of a community equity survey that was commissioned by the city earlier this year. City staff hoped to use this survey to better understand Lynnwood community members’ experiences regarding belonging, safety, civic engagement and interactions with government.
Ishmael Nuñez, director of community and placemaking at BDS Planning and Urban Design, said that over 800 surveys were collected from community members, giving surveyors a good reflection of Lynnwood’s diverse population.
Surveys were offered in print and digitally, and were written in English, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese.
“We wanted to know: To what extent are the [residents] experiencing the city as safe, welcoming and equitable?” Nuñez said.
According to collected surveys, residents felt the city was doing a lot of things right. Most survey respondents said they believe that Lynnwood has a strong sense of neighborhood-centric community identity, and over 60% of residents felt safe and welcomed in the city.
However, there were some areas where the city could improve, according to residents. Many said they want more ways to connect to the city and want Lynnwood to be proactive in helping residents become civically engaged.
Many survey respondents also requested better translation services at various events in the city.
Councilmember Smith pointed out that many of the ZIP codes listed on submitted surveys were from unincorporated Lynnwood and asked why that was. Nuñez clarified, saying the ZIP code area was left as a write-in rather than a list of options to pick from, to better understand the larger community surrounding the city limits.
Smith voiced his unhappiness about that, saying that with only roughly two-thirds of survey respondents being actual Lynnwood residents, the results were skewed by individuals who lived outside the city.
Nuñez said the BDS team could follow up with the results strictly received by residents within the city limits if the council desired. Councilmembers agreed that they were mostly interested in what city residents had to say and agreed to view the updated results at a later meeting.
In addition, the council received a presentation on the long-range plans of the Community Transit 2024 network.
Community Transit’s Director of Planning and Development Roland Behee explained that the transit agency would be eliminating its routes from Snohomish County to King County, and giving those routes to Sound Transit instead.
With the new Sound Transit link light rail station coming to Lynnwood in 2024, Behee said the bus routes no longer seem practical.
“[The bus] experience is variable by nature,” he said. “You might spend half an hour taking that trip one day, but you might spend an hour and a half the next day. And it really just depends on the conditions on I-5.”
Instead of focusing on commuter routes, the agency is looking at ways to better move people to and from light rail stations.
Behee said Community Transit received over 700 community responses during multiple open houses throughout the past year and will be spending the summer refining the information received into project designs and details regarding bus service changes starting in 2024.
Also during that time, the transit system will be focusing on recruiting more employees and building more bus stations to manage the expected increase of transit riders when the light rail is completed.
“We need to hire a lot of drivers to increase service to this [next] level,” Behee said.
For the city’s new Swift Orange Line alone, Community Transit has purchased 15 new buses and is constructing 19 platform stations, as well as a new transit center in front of Edmonds College.
The City of Lynnwood will also be seeing a new pilot service within the coming months: On- demand transit shuttles.
These shuttles are expected to manage a new wave of transit riders when the light rail opens. The pilot program will be more flexible than the city’s Swift bus lines, because they can arrive at unique pick-up points and drop-off destinations.
Behee said riders can order and pay for the on-demand shuttles via phone to make access easy and efficient.
–By Lauren Reichenbach