Following county’s purchase of hotels for temporary housing, what comes next?

Exterior of America’s Best Value Inn on Highway 99

When you answer one question, others always follow. That’s what happened when we reported that Snohomish County is buying two hotels to help bring stable housing to peope who are homeless.

One of the properties the Snohomish County Council agreed to buy is in Edmonds — the America’s Best Value Inn, on Highway 99. The county will pay just over $9 million for the 55-unit motel.

The money comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) pandemic recovery money. In announcing the plan, County Executive Dave Somers said, “We can provide safer places for vulnerable residents, create stability to support communities’ overall health and well-being.”

An America’s Best Value Inn room. (Photo courtesy Snohomish County)

The Best Value Inn and the other hotel the county bought — a Days Inn near Everett Mall — will provide a total of 129 units for those taking the first step out of homelessness. The concept is called “bridge” housing — designed to provide immediate shelter in a stable environment, with 24/7 support services. Those services include health and mental health support, job services, some food assistance and counseling.

Readers wanted more answers to these questions:

  • How can the county use federal pandemic money on this project?
  • How will the county pay for long-term support for these programs?
  • Will this increase my property taxes?
  • What about security – both to protect tenants and keep crime out?
  • What about past gang problems in the area?
  • Must tenants with substance abuse problems be in treatment programs before they move in?
  • How do we know this “bridge housing” can be successful?

Here is what we found out.

Part of ARPA is the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund. It permits cities, towns and counties to use federal money to “address the negative economic impacts caused by COVID.” That includes providing housing for homeless populations. This is not a new plan. ARPA was signed into law in March 2021. The hotel purchases are just the first time Snohomish County has used the federal dollars for homeless housing.

Buying the hotels is one thing. Maintaining them and providing 24/7 services means the county is on the hook for the long term. “It’s a big commitment,” acknowledged MJ Brell-Vujovic, the county’s director of human services. For the Best Value Inn, she estimates that will total about $2 million a year.

Where will that money come from?

The Washington State Legislature in 2020 passed a bill to allow counties to impose a 1/10 of 1% local sales tax increase to pay for affordable housing and behavioral health facilities, maintenance, and services. The Snohomish County Council voted to do that in December 2021. Next year, the county says that tax increase will generate more than $23 million. Over five years, the total is estimated at more than $116 million. The money can be used for construction, operation and maintenance of affordable housing, and the services for homeless and low-income people.

We do know that the Best Value Inn will have 24/7 security provided by private contract. Brell-Vujovic told us “somebody will be there to make sure the tenants are safe and that people who don’t live there don’t get in.” Part of the property management agreement, she added, will be to keep out those who are not residents. “The hope and intent and experience in other locations,” she said, “is that there are fewer 911 calls.”

The scene outside America’s Best Value Inn after domestic violence suspect was shot by police April 22, 2022. (Photo by Nathan Blackwell)

Just this past April, Edmonds police responding to a domestic violence call at the Best Value Inn killed a suspect who, they said, came at officers with a knife.

In January, in that same neighborhood, we reported on a four-month crime wave that Edmonds police told us was “the most violence we have ever seen.” Most of that took place next door to the Best Value Inn, at the Emerald Best Motel.

Police response at Emerald Best Motel – on Dec. 16, 2021. (Edmonds police photo)

The 110 calls to police and emergency services in four months included 20 arrests for drugs, gun crimes, stolen cars, violations of court orders and outstanding warrants. The crime in that area, said then-acting Assistant ChiefJosh McClure, is “the number-one public safety issue in Edmonds.” Much of it was related to gang members who started hanging out along Highway 99. Since a police crackdown this spring, crime reports are down.

That was then. Now, with the county motel project, Edmonds Chief Michelle Bennett issued the following statement: “The additional oversight and programmatic services the county will bring to this site are important enhancements from a human services perspective. People needing help will be substantially better served, and Edmonds police will have more partners to work with in providing public safety response.”

Who decides who gets to move into the homeless housing? Will tenants with substance abuse problems have to be in treatment before they can live in the units?

The 55 units will only allow adults — singles or couples. No children. Bridge housing is designed as a first step out of homelessness. It is also what is called “low-barrier” housing, which can mean that those suffering substance abuse problems do not have to be enrolled in treatment to live there.

This strategy says that the first thing homeless people need, especially those with substance abuse issues, is a safe, stable place to live. Brell-Vujovic, the county’s human services director, puts it this way: “It’s really hard to think about anything else when you wake up other than where get food, a bathroom and shelter.” Advocates of the “Housing First” model argue if people don’t have shelter, there is far less chance that rehabilitation and any other service will work.

But some worry about the Housing First model. County Councilmember Nate Nehring introduced an amendment to delay the hotel purchases until the county agreed to require anyone moving in to be already in treatment. Nehring said he wanted “a compassionate approach,” but warned, “Warehousing individuals struggling with addiction in hotels just to get them off the street is not solving the underlying causes of their situation and is not compassionate. My ordinance would require that these individuals participate in a treatment program.” His ordinance failed to pass the council.

The county will contract with nonprofits to provide the services  — mental health counseling, health assessments, job and education services, some food supplies as well as 24/7 property management and security. The county is working on a draft of an affordable housing business plan. The county is asking for public input, and the  deadline for comments is Sept. 15. What happens at Best Value Inn and the Days Inn will depend on what’s in this plan.

Can bridge housing or Housing First succeed?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness believe the Housing First approach is highly effective at combating homelessness.

The federal U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness identifies the Housing First model as a key strategy.

 Yale University researcher Dr. Jack Tsai thinks that “Housing First is great because it helps with housing,” but he asks, “what comes second?” Tsai’s team studied 30,000 homeless veterans with alcohol and drug disorders and found that many continued to have problems once they had housing — but also determined that their drug use did not get worse. Some service providers told Tsai’s study that they “worry about the lack of treatment requirements in the programs and whether participants are learning what they need to become independent.”

“We know Housing First isn’t the be-all, end-all,” said Tsai. “A lot of times, other services are needed to help them maintain housing over time.” He says success for the programs will depend on the “critical” role case managers play with the tenants.

Proponents insist that Housing First will save communities money, citing fewer police and emergency medical calls. The National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness have said that the “average cost savings to the public ranges from $900 to $29,400 per person per year after entry into a Housing First program.” It is a sentiment shared by the Everett Herald’s editorial board, which wrote that investments in other communities in 24/7 wraparound services “has been shown to reduce costs common to untreated homelessness, such as police and aid calls, emergency room use, court use, incarceration and more.”

Shannon Burley

Shannon Burley, who oversees the City of Edmonds human services division, calls the county’s purchase of Best Value Inn “a natural fit with Edmonds needs for homeless housing.” The city and other nonprofits already use housing vouchers to send people to the Best Value Inn for a few nights of emergency shelter. Burley said that “through partnerships with the county and nonprofit service providers, individuals will receive much needed wraparound care and services. This is a great addition for South Snohomish County.”

County Human Services Director Brell-Vujovic said that “first and foremost, the people who are in need are in your community right now.”  Our choice, she adds, “is not between doing something and doing nothing, but doing something in a planned, purposeful, humane way.”

The new bridge housing at America’s Best Value Inn is scheduled to open early next year.

— By Bob Throndsen

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