Freeland residents question supportive housing plans for motel

— Created June 22, 2022 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

A boisterous, standing-room-only crowd filled Trinity Lutheran Church’s meeting room last Thursday evening (June 16) to learn more about potential plans to convert the Harbor Inn motel in Freeland to supportive and transitional housing.

Island County District 1 Commissioner Melanie Bacon organized the community meeting to address what she called rumors circulating throughout the unincorporated community. Representatives from the county’s human services, planning and public health departments were also there to share information.

The proposal involves plans by the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), based in Seattle, to purchase the Harbor Inn motel and convert it to transitional and supportive housing for Island County residents. Island County Commissioners have tentatively approved moving forward with this project, which includes agreeing to provide $1.5 million in matching funds from money set aside for this purpose. The money would not come from the county’s general fund.

“Over a number of months, a lot of discussions went back and forth between LIHI and the [motel] owner and at some point in that process there was a state Notice of Funds Available,” explained Joanne Pelant, housing programs supervisor for Island County Human Services. “LIHI applied for acquisition funds for the motel, and within that NOFA, it did require some local match dollars. That was presented to the commissioners and the commissioners have tentatively approved that piece that’s required within that grant to be part of the overall acquisition development piece. It’s not a done deal. There’s still a lot of pieces to work out with this project.”

Pelant said LIHI would use the motel’s existing footprint – 16 units in the main building, four in a smaller building, and one apartment, which would be used for an onsite property manager.

Concerns expressed by those at the meeting included where the money was coming from, whether the septic system could handle the additional capacity, whether this type of use is permitted under current zoning laws and whether a site plan had been provided. But what seemed to be most concerning to those at the meeting was who would be allowed to stay there.

“I just want to be real clear…we’re not talking about drop-ins, we’re not talking about transients, we’re not talking about overnight housing,” Bacon responded to those concerned LIHI would bring in residents from Seattle.

“All referrals would come through the Housing Support Center that is in the Human Services Department,” said Pelant. “A survey would be done to make sure they qualify for the program and a referral would be made to the property manager, the case manager on site. There’s no walk-ins allowed and there’s rules and regulations that they would have to follow.”

The use of the term “low barrier” housing was also a major concern for some of those in the crowd.

“In the flyer I was given it directly said there was going to be a low barrier shelter portion in here,” said one woman. “A low barrier shelter has no rules or guidelines…and that’s not okay.”

“People are having a hard time differentiating between supportive housing and the type of housing LIHI is mostly known for, which is homeless housing in Seattle,” Bacon said in response to a follow up question from Whidbey Weekly. “LIHI uses the term ‘low barrier housing’ in their documents. If you Google ‘low barrier housing,’ it’s defined as emergency shelter that doesn’t require background checks or sobriety. But neither LIHI nor Island County intend for that to be the case in Freeland, and we are ADAMANT that our human services people WILL screen the applicants and make referrals for the housing based on that screening. This is not a drop-in facility, or a place for people and their friends to flop between drug doses—we intend this as a place for people who are working to improve their lives and just need safety and a little assistance from the government to help them transition to the next, better phase in their lives.”

“I’ve been pretty passive during this whole process between the county and LIHI, but what I wanted to do was to try and paint a more honest and accurate picture,” said Richard Soto, owner of the Harbor Inn. “For 20 years we’ve been housing the kinds of people that a lot of you seem to be so concerned about. Starting in September of every year until the end of May, a large part of our business are people who come to us who pay month-to-month. Some of them can pay top dollar because they’re working for the boat yard but a lot of people, if they can only scrape together $300 a month, that’s what we do. We let it go.”

Some of those at the meeting said they could have benefitted if such a place had it been available to them. Others spoke to the difficulty of finding affordable housing on Whidbey Island.

“When I moved here in September it was extremely difficult to find housing,” said Parker Dean, who works at Good Cheer Food Bank in Langley. He stressed he was not speaking on behalf of the food bank, but from his own observations.

“For me, for how the leases were offered here, we would have to leave for the summer, leave for three months, move out when [the owners] would want to come,” he said. “It’s extremely difficult. And the biggest problem for our clients is housing. Our clients are homeless. They struggle with housing.”

Those in attendance asked several times about whether site plans and permits had been presented to commissioners. But because it doesn’t yet own the property, LIHI has not submitted any permit applications.

“Since no change is intended to the existing motel exteriors, I don’t expect to see a site plan,” Bacon said. “If they have to change the septic or drain field, I will see a site plan for that—but we won’t know that until the application is filed and the public health process begins.”

Motel owner Soto said he just didn’t understand the concern over water usage and the facility’s septic system.

“We have never had an issue with our septic system,” he said. “We have a reserve field and we’ve had a reserve field since we bought the property in 2002. It’s a large reserve field and we spend probably in the neighborhood of about $5- to $6,000 a year keeping it a healthy drain field. The argument that these new people that are coming in are going to use, to exceed, the amount of use is foolish because right now it’s using a lot more water. Plus, we have laundry facilities. We’ve got three washing machines and three dryers and those things are running 24/7 and they haven’t stopped for 20 years. When there’s permanent residents living there, they’re not gonna get that kind of use because nobody’s gonna be cleaning their sheets every night; they’re gonna get washed once a week. The point I’m trying to make is the impact the facility is going to have on water and sewer is going to be less, not more.”

People also expressed concern about whether changes would need to be made to the zoning codes and jeered when they learned zoning codes had been updated in 2019. The proposal does call for “mixed use” on the property – meaning half of the units would be supportive housing and half would be transitional housing.

“Transitional housing is allowed under the current zoning use,” said Bacon. “Supportive housing might involve someone staying there for more than a month, and the allowability of that is still being reviewed by our planning department.”

At some points, those in the audience heckled and booed Commissioner Bacon, particularly when it came to the nonprofit LIHI.

“I am surprised about the vehemence I’ve heard against LIHI,” she said. “If you google Low Income Housing Institute, what you find online is overwhelmingly positive. When I mentioned that…I got booed.”

In her weekly newsletter from June 17, Bacon addressed some of the mistrust on display during the meeting.

“There was also a lot of distrust expressed toward the government—which I had to take kind of personally, since I was the elected representative of the government in the room and this was my meeting,” she wrote. “One gentleman actually implied money was being exchanged for the deal, which really offended me (do I actually have to assure you no one at the County is accepting bribes for projects?).”

But the Harbor Inn/LIHI proposal is not new – commissioners began working on this in October last year. Bacon said she wasn’t really surprised people were just learning about the proposal and speaking out.

“People don’t pay that much attention to the daily processes of their government until something occurs that they realize might impact them,” she said. “I do a newsletter every week, in which I talk about what we did at work session and regular session—and even in those newsletters I don’t mention most of the decisions that were made or discussions that were held, because most of what we do in government is frankly, pretty tedious. People elect their representatives, then expect them to pay attention to things, making good decisions so that each individual citizen can get on with their lives without having to worry too much about what’s going on with their government.”

Whidbey Weekly did submit several questions to LIHI, but had received no response by press time. Commissioners expect the final decision on the Harbor Inn/LIHI project will come up in July. Anyone interested can find more information about upcoming meetings at County commission meetings are held at 10 a.m. the first four Tuesdays of each month.