No Home for the Homeless Shelter
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
NO HOME FOR THE HOMELESS SHELTER: The mayor’s approach to negotiation was put to the acid test this week as Kelli Linville challenged the Port of Bellingham to step up and match city investment in marine trades as part of her overall strategy to site a low-barrier homeless shelter in the waterfront’s industrial zone. The City of Bellingham offered the port $300,000 in capital contribution and additional marine trade investments in an effort to move forward with the proposed shelter on a piece of city-owned property that the port retains first option to buy.
Certainly the siting of the shelter has been the capstone of Linville’s long career of trying to find the solution to thorny problems somewhere in the middle of a tangled thicket of competing interests. Her solution usually involves taking the view to a new level, where the altitude can reveal the patterns where interests intersect. It doesn’t always work; but sometimes it does.
This time it did not.
Port commissioners agreed 2-1 this week to exercise their option to purchase the property in order to keep it in their marine trades assemblage.
The proposed 200-bed, 24-hour shelter was intended to help provide shelter to homeless individuals who do not easily qualify for other housing programs. The mayor has been working with Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM) for a year to identify a location for the shelter. If approved, LMM has committed to raise $1.5 million to rehabilitate the building and fund operations, with $180,000 per year of city support for emergency night shelter services. The city and its partners must now sharpen their pencils to find an alternate location that is within the city’s control.
Advocacy groups such as the Working Waterfront Coalition have expressed concerns that the proposed shelter would displace businesses and be incompatible with a nascent marine trades industry that’s found footing north of Whatcom Waterway in the decades following the closure of the Georgia-Pacific mill. The governing board of the coalition unanimously opposes locating the shelter on the marine trades property. As they have throughout, many advocates and opponents of the proposed shelter and its location spoke intelligently and respectfully to one another, and generously about the need to appropriately address the needs of the chronically homeless in Bellingham. But, most agued, not here.
Port commissioners agreed with those coalition concerns in a public meeting earlier this spring, threatening the siting of what the city considers the last, best place for a shelter to serve the last, hardest-to-place portion of the city’s homeless population. One commissioner was staunchly opposed to the proposal, two others were on the fence. Kelli took their qualms to the next level, arguing that marine trades do deserve additional investment by the city and port and offered capital improvements in infrastructure to assist that industry.
“Out of 240 acres in the waterfront district, a little over one acre of city property has been identified for use as a homeless shelter,” the mayor explained. “The city does not own any other suitable, non-residential property for this use, nor have we identified any other public or privately held property.
“We realize that the members of the Working Waterfront Coalition and others are concerned about displacement of business and losing area for the working waterfront,” the mayor outlined in her proposal to the commission. “We share their concern. We would like to see the businesses relocated to another area on port property that works for them. In fact, an expansion of the area used by the working waterfront is in all of our best interests.”
Port commissioners faced a hard choice between surrendering their option on the property—and losing faith with a strengthening coalition of boat builders, diesel engine mechanics and heavy equipment specialists, and fishing interests concerned with encroachment and job loss in an irreplaceable industrial zone with marine access, concerns shared by the commission—or laying out $780,000 in their option to purchase the property, money that otherwise might be spent on improvements to the marine trades area. The mayor’s offer relieved the commission of surrendering something for nothing.
Unfortunately, her gamble did not pay off, with the commission this week agreeing to exercise their option and purchase the property.
In 2012, the port and city concluded a land exchange that provided the port with an assemblage to create the marine trades area, while the city consolidated property ownership around Cornwall Beach in anticipation of a future park. The agreement was proposed as a land swap, with no money changing hands, as a means of simplifying a jigsaw puzzle of land ownership, allowing each government to focus on its areas of strength and interest. A nugget of city-owned property at the former Colony Wharf site was not included in the 2012 exchange—frankly, because the port got to employ for free what the city controlled and saw no reason to pay market value to acquire the property. The agency retained a first option to purchase the property, an option the commission exercised this week.
Commissioners in a split vote selected the option that appears lose-lose in this equation: Giving up the city’s offer of partnership in investment in marine trades, and paying out a sum the agency can ill afford to retain control of the property.
For Commissioner Bobby Briscoe, the duty was clear to keep the integrity of the marine trades area intact and resist the conversion of any additional waterfront industrial land to other uses. For Commissioner Michael McAuley, the passion was equally fierce to not spend unbudgeted money when the port’s budget is already stretched and its infrastructure across the county lies in disrepair. Commissioner Dan Robbins expressed a skepticism that the shelter would work in its proposed location and believed the agency best controlled outcomes by purchasing the property.
The city is not entirely out of options. But the easiest option, the option least in collision with other city goals, is off the negotiating table.