Council split on whether taxpayers should cover cost of displaced tenants

Whispering Pines is located at 18225 52nd Ave. W. in Lynnwood.

The Lynnwood City Council at its Oct. 21 meeting revisited the discussion regarding a low-income tenant displacement ordinance proposed by Councilmember George Hurst. At the council’s Oct. 16 business meeting, Hurst made a motion proposing the formation of an ad hoc task group to draft an ordinance that would help displaced low-income residents cover the cost of moving out of the building which is scheduled for remodel.

The motion was supported by multiple Whispering Pines residents, who spoke during the meeting’s public comments portion. Tenants of the low-income housing apartment complex are expected to be moved out of the building by September 2021.

During the Oct. 21 work session, there was general agreement in favor of a task group to explore an ordinance. However, the council was divided on whether the city’s tax dollars should cover the cost of displaced tenants’ move-in deposits, fees and moving services.

Opening the discussion, Hurst said the council should consider the adoption of a displaced tenant ordinance, not only for Whispering Pines residents, but other low-income tenants who may be displaced in the future.

“I think that the crucial part for me is that we need to take this step forward and at least take a look at this ordinance and see if it’s feasible for Lynnwood,” he said.

During the discussion, the councilmembers clashed on whether the city should authorize the use of taxpayers’ dollars to cover the moving costs for displaced tenants. According to Hurst, under state law the city has the authority to use Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) funds to assist displaced tenants cover the cost of relocating. Additionally, he said that the city could potentially be authorized to use sales tax funds under House Bill 1406.

Though she supported the formation of a task group, Councilmember Ruth Ross said she did not agree that the city should adopt an ordinance that authorized the use of taxpayers’ dollars and the ordinance drafted by the task group should be focused on helping Whispering Pines residents.

“I would like to help these people,” she said. “That’s what I think the focus should be.”

Instead, Ross suggested that the city look into available grants to cover the cost of displaced tenants instead of having the money come from the city’s taxpayers.

Council Vice President Christine Frizzell said that after speaking with community members, she agreed that the city should find alternatives to using tax dollars to aid Whispering Pines tenants.

“There is concern about using taxpayer dollars for a very small portion of our population,” she said.

Furthermore, Frizzell pointed out that there could be other buildings that need remodeling, which could lead to more displaced tenants. Frizzell said she was unsure using tax dollars to continue to help displaced tenants was a sustainable model. Like Ross, she suggested the city look into partnering with nonprofit organizations.

Additionally, Frizzell suggested that the council wait for additional housing data from city staff before implementing any policies regarding housing and that the solution should involve collaboration with other cities.

“We need to get other South County cities on board,” she said. “We need more than just us at the table.”

Whispering Pines is a mixed-income housing complex that accepts Section 8 low-income housing vouchers. In his response, Hurst pointed out that tax dollars fund Section 8 vouchers as well as the Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO), which owns the building.

Responding to the suggestion that the city partner with non-profit organization, Hurst said that the proposed ordinance already has the support of local non-profits like Volunteers of America and HASCO.

“We have the ability right now to create an ordinance that will help these folks,” he said.

Councilmember Ian Cotton suggested that the ordinance be used as a trial run with an expiration date. While in effect, the council would be able to learn about how to better implement a more permanent solution. He also reminded the council that not long ago, they were considering purchasing the Rodeo Inn motel for $5 million to be used to house homeless Edmonds School District students and their families.

Councilmember Shannon Sessions pointed out that the potential purchase of the Rodeo Inn — which fell through due to the high cost of remodeling the building would have required — was a collaborative effort between the city, the school district and several other community partners that she said would have been a sustainable plan.

“That was something that actually could have carried on for years and continue serving our community,” she said. “I don’t see that as anything like this.”

Session added that she agreed with the decision to form the task group.

Council President Ben Goodwin also said he had concerns about sustainability with the proposed ordinance. Goodwin pointed out that most of the city’s low-income and affordable housing is located near the City Center district, which is anticipating future redevelopment. In his opinion, it may appear the council is helping with the ordinance in the short term, but if displaced Whispering Pines tenants are relocated to another building that could be subject to redevelopment, then the tenants will find themselves in the same situation down the road.

“I have concerns about sustainability,” he said. “But (also) are we doing more harm than good?”

The council will revisit the motion to form the ad hoc task group and the proposed amendments at its Oct. 28 business meeting.

–Story by Cody Sexton

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