By Erica C. Barnett
The Burien City Council voted narrowly last week to delay a Downtown Emergency Center development that would provide 95 units of permanent supportive housing, including at least 25 units for disabled veterans.
The proposal is part of Burien’s 2019 Affordable Housing Demonstration Program, which grants zoning variances to projects that serve people at various income levels; DESC applied to build housing for people between 0 and 30 percent of area median income, the lowest income level included in the pilot.
The Burien Planning Commission approved the project unanimously in April, but council members raised objections after some residents complained that the project would harm downtown businesses and bring homeless people from other areas (like Seattle) into Burien.
It’s a common complaint leveled against projects outside the city—see also: The Red Lion hotel shelter in Renton, another DESC project—and a major challenge for the new regional homelessness authority, which is supposed to come up with a regional approach to homelessness. King County’s suburban cities tend to see homelessness as a “Seattle problem,” and many opted out of a countywide tax that would provide housing for their homeless communities, preferring to pass their own taxes to fund higher-income developments.
Just as cities can’t restrict home sales or apartment rentals to people who already live there, they aren’t allowed to ban “outsiders” from moving into low-income housing developments.
Summarizing opposition to the “contentious and divisive” project, Councilmember Nancy Tosta said at last week’s meeting that community members have raised “concerns” about the “location, scale, and the fact that this facility won’t serve [Burien’s] low-income families and may not serve our Burien homeless population,” because it will be open to homeless individuals (not families) from all parts of the county. Just as cities can’t restrict home sales or apartment rentals to people who already live there, they aren’t allowed to ban “outsiders” from moving into low-income housing developments.
“Our downtown urban center plan envisions a thriving, safe, vibrant business community, and our businesses and community members have expressed concerns about what is happening downtown and that … this facility, where it is proposed, may create more problems, Tosta said.
DESC director Daniel Malone says he heard similar objections when the agency opened a similar building called Rainier House between the Columbia City and Hillman City neighborhoods in Seattle. “Folks said, ‘You’re going to be importing people from downtown Seattle to our neighborhood,’ and in that case we were left to say, ‘You understand that not a single one of these folks was born and raised in downtown Seattle—they all came there from someplace.”
Burien, Malone noted, has a large homeless population of its own. “We’ve made it clear that we very much want the tenants in this building to be people who are currently choosing to be in Burien,” Malone said. “And we’ve been candid that we can’t [legally] promise some kind of exclusivity, but there are many things we can do to help ensure that that’s the outcome that we end up with.”
Deputy mayor Krystal Marx, who has received vitriolic letters and phone calls opposing DESC’s proposal, called the project “almost a relief valve for the system, where Burien has been sending these folks to places like Seattle for years because we haven’t had support services to take care of folks.”
“People do not understand that Seattle looks the way it does on the surface because it’s the only city to address those problems that the other 38 cities [in King County have failed to address.”—Burien Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx
“Burien has a giant fear of Seattle,” Marx continued, “because, ‘Look at Seattle, it’s dying,’ and people do not understand that Seattle looks the way it does on the surface because it’s the only city to address those problems that the other 38 cities [in King County] have failed to address.”
Malone says DESC has held several public meetings and has met privately with business groups, the police chief, and community organizations to assuage fears about the project. They’ve also sunk about half a million dollars into things like design and preliminary site acquisition work, most of which they can’t get back if the council sinks the project.
In voting to table DESC’s project, the council majority agreed to hold another public hearing—essentially, a one-way public comment session—by June 21, with the goal of reaching some kind of “consensus” on the proposal after that. Council member Cydney Moore, who opposed the delay, said at last week’s meeting that there were some issues, including homelessness, that would always be “divisive.” “People are not always going to agree with everything,” she said, but “I think that we owe them a decision.”