While the Centralia City Council voted down a request to delay consideration of an ordinance that would amend Centralia’s building code to reduce the parking requirements for permanent supportive housing developments, Mayor Susan Luond’s motion to vote on the second reading of the ordinance died without a second from city council members Tuesday.
Council members ran into trouble at a March 24 meeting for broadening their discussion of the ordinance to include a conversation on a specific project detailed by Brett Mitchell, of Reliable Enterprises, and affordable housing in general.
Confusion as to what was allowed to be part of the discussion was prevalent among council members and public commenters alike during the Tuesday meeting, with Luond shutting down parts of each of the evening’s three public commenters’ testimony due to concerns about going off-topic.
“The reason why we’re trying to be very careful about what we speak about is because the public process in open public meetings and the desire for the public to be involved means that if something is on the agenda, we discuss it; if it’s not on the agenda, and wasn’t added to the agenda, that means it wasn’t noticed and the public can’t have proper notification to come speak to it,” explained council member Kelly Smith Johnston, who clarified that while the specific request to change the parking requirement in the building code as it applies to permanent supportive housing was on the agenda and could be discussed, affordable housing in general and Centralia’s housing inventory was not.
The city of Centralia recently received funding to do a comprehensive housing study, and the city council confirmed Tuesday that it would schedule a public workshop on Centralia’s housing inventory and housing needs after the survey is complete.
Some of Tuesday’s discussion was dedicated to clearing up misunderstandings about the ordinance, which, if passed, would change the city’s code to eliminate the garage requirement and lower the minimum number of required parking spaces to one and a half per unit for multifamily developments of 20 units or more that can be classified as very low income, affordable housing, and permanent supportive housing. That’s defined as subsidized, leased housing with no limit on length of stay that prioritizes people who need comprehensive support services to retain tenancy. Only developments that met all three of those definitions would qualify for the lower parking requirement.
Centralia’s building code currently requires all multi-family developments to have at least two parking spaces, at least one of which is covered by a garage, as well as additional street parking.
While Smith Johnston initially voted in favor of the code change, she advised her fellow council members that she would be changing her vote to advocate against the change, citing a visible need for parking within the city’s existing low-income subsidized units as a reason, as well as a concern about fairness to developers who successfully built to the existing code.
“I want developers to know that they can expect the code to stay the same when they’re working in the city of Centralia,” she said.
She added that, as a single mother of two children, her garage had been “an exceptional source of security” for her, allowing her to leave her kids safely in the car while she’s unloading groceries, and making it easier for her to get her kids safely to school in the mornings.
“I also want to be aware of the false paradox, that we have to approve this code change or not help people who might benefit from permanent supportive housing,” she said.
The ordinance was born out of a request from Mitchell of Reliable Enterprises, who is currently pursuing a project to build a permanent supportive housing development in Centralia’s urban growth area that would specifically focus on serving transient families with children who are enrolled in the Centralia School District.
Mitchell proposed a similar code change with a looser definition of housing that would qualify for the lower parking requirement back in December, which the council struck down.
The Centralia Planning Commission reviewed the current ordinance proposal on Feb. 11 and approved a motion to make a positive recommendation to the city council.
“We talked this one around a whole lot and I think it came down to just affordable housing and looking at this particular scenario that we just came to the conclusion that it was just the right thing to do,” said Planning Commission Vice-Chair Norm Chapman at the city council’s Tuesday meeting.
Mitchell previously told the city council that the code change would significantly reduce the cost of Reliable Enterprises’ project; and while the passage of the ordinance would affect Reliable Enterprise’s project, it would permanently change the city’s building code .
The first reading of the ordinance passed 5-2 on March 23, but several other council members stated that their opinion on the ordinance had changed since that first vote, primarily citing concerns about changing the building code.
“Permanent supportive housing, I think, is a noble and valiant cause that I fully support,” said Councilor Cameron McGee. “There are other things that do qualify for permanent supportive housing that are not what Reliable is working on, a project that I do love, but I’m not supportive of changing the code for the entire city.”
“We’re setting the story for years to come and I don’t think this needs to be looked at as one project or another, because Reliable Enterprises can do a great project we all love, somebody else can come in and do a project that can be problematic for our community,” Mayor-Pro-Tem Max Vogt said. “We’re changing the whole code. It sounds like a very specific type of development, which it is, but it’s much more broad than what Reliable Enterprises is doing.”
Luond and Councilor Mark Westley said they would stick with their original votes against the code change
“After previously stating my position at the prior meeting against making that change … all the comments that I received were in support of the position that I had taken, which kind of surprised me a bit. I had expected to hear from both sides from our community members, but to my surprise, all of the interactions that I have gotten through text messages or emails were in support of the position that I had previously taken,” Westley said.
Luond said “my concern with it is that prior councilors looked at our community and saw where a lack of garages and on-street parking was not the direction this city wanted to go in and they took the time and effort to put this current code in place … and I respect that decision and I think our community needs this for a standard. We have to keep some standards in this community, and we have to raise the bar.”
Rebecca Staebler was the lone council member advocating in favor of the ordinance, and attempted to counter other council members’ concerns about changing the city’s building code.
“The reason things come before us to look at is because situations change and codes change and cities make decisions based on the realities of the population, of the time, of the needs of the community, and so I don’t really buy that as a reason not to do it, otherwise we would be stuck in codes that were existing when the city was founded,” she said. “We don’t do that. We change as things come, as culture changes, there are many things that we would be totally embarrassed about if we didn’t change our codes and ordinances.”
Regarding permanent supportive housing, Staebler said that, based on information from Reliable Enterprises, parking needs at permanent supportive housing developments aren’t as dire as other council members have made them seem.
“These (permanent supportive housing units) are meant to get people out of a situation of crisis,” she said. “We have a huge issue in our community — in every community — of people in crisis and this is a way to get them off the streets, out of a van and into a home, and they may or may not need a car and they may need a bigger unit, they may want a bigger unit, and the wraparound services that are provided in permanent supportive housing are meant to … help them get to that place where they can grow and they want to grow, and they don’t want to stay in a unit where they don’t have a garage.”
Because the motion to vote on the second reading of the ordinance died on the floor due to a lack of second, the issue will be brought back for consideration at a later meeting.