Centralia senior citizen Sue Wallace spends a lot of her days painting and coloring in her one-bedroom unit with her canine companion, Scooter. Before moving into Centralia’s Reliable Place three years ago, she shared an apartment with her sister. But after her sister’s death, Wallace couldn’t afford the rent and was forced to move out.
“It was kind of scary for awhile, because I was alone. My sister was the last one,” Wallace told The Chronicle recently. “I had nobody.”
Reliable Place offers permanent supportive housing to formerly homeless and disabled residents, most of whom receive income from Social Security. In addition to a place to live, the facility offers mental health resources, employment assistance, budgeting help, life skills classes and activities.
For Wallace, living in permanent supportive housing means she can rely on case managers to drive her to medical appointments. More recently, case manager Nicole Williford came in on a weekend to get Scooter to emergency surgery, likely saving his life.
“If it wasn’t for this place, I’d have no place to go,” Wallace said.
The two dozen units at Reliable Place on West Reynolds Avenue have essentially been full since day one, 10 years ago, said Brett Mitchell, executive director of Reliable Enterprises, the nonprofit that operates the facility.
“That population did not have a place to live until we built it,” Mitchell said.
More recently, Reliable Enterprises set its sight on another permanent supportive housing facility. The proposal — a two-story building with two- and three-bedroom units on Harrison Avenue — would house 29 homeless families working to get their kids through the Centralia School District.
For Mitchell, the project is an opportunity to help families, help the community and potentially break generational cycles of poverty.
The need is clear, Mitchell said, and an $8 million grant from the state is there to back it up. But the project faces an uphill battle, with opposition from local officials. And if the city refuses to grant Mitchell’s request for a parking exemption, he says the money will go back to the state and the project will be scrapped.
Renderings for the new project have been completed, permits have been acquired and funding secured. According to Mitchell, one of the last puzzle pieces is a parking exemption from the city, which would allow Reliable Enterprises to stay within budget and within the scope of the grant.
Without the exception, the new development would have to include two parking spaces per unit — half under garages — plus guest parking. Mitchell’s request would eliminate the garage requirement and reduce minimum parking spaces for the project, as well as other multi-family permanent supportive housing facilities. Mitchell said the population Reliable Enterprises serves often doesn’t own cars anyway.
Plus, in his experience, providing excessive storage space — like garages — can hurt tenants’ chances of moving out. Reliable Enterprises’ housing-first approach means formerly homeless tenants can use the stability and safety of permanent shelter to address other underlying issues. Many tenants can then transition out of permanent supportive housing.
But city officials have so far blocked Mitchell’s request. Only one person on the seven-member board threw her support behind it this month. The council declined to vote on a second reading.
In their opposition, many described a city-wide parking problem.
For Centralia city councilmember Kelly Smith Johnston, changing city code based on a project seems unfair to other developers. She also told her peers that “garages have been very important to me.”
Others said neighboring cities should step up to the plate. In Centralia’s twin city, Chehalis, officials recently banned congregate housing, similarly citing parking concerns.
In Centralia, officials expanded their critique beyond parking. Mayor Sue Luond expressed opposition to the project itself, saying Centralia has already been “very generous” in providing low-income housing. Any more, she said, could threaten the “health of our city.” And making accomodations for the project could “bring more into our area.”
Luond declined to be interviewed by The Chronicle, saying she would only comment on the matter during public meetings.
Centralia resident Sean Swope — who serves as a Lewis County commissioner — also weighed in, telling the council that while he supports Reliable Enterprises, “if we keep allowing these developments, they’ll keep coming here.”
“I’d prefer, as a citizen of Centralia, that we’d raise the bar, not lower the bar. I think garages are good,” Swope later told The Chronicle. “Let’s challenge people to want more and be better.”
He also pointed to a perceived lack of middle-income housing, citing his own challenging house-hunt.
Centralia is planning to launch a comprehensive housing study, which would shed light on the city’s housing inventory and needs. County commissioners are considering a similar study.
But in the absence of that comprehensive study, Mitchell said, the opposition is frustrating. He said the city shouldn’t be denying much-needed low-income housing just because other housing issues exist. Limited housing supply is already widely understood to be one of the major issues facing the area. Lewis County’s current strategic plan cites “vacancy rates currently less than 1%.”
“We’re not the boogeyman. We’re not trying to attract homeless people here. We just simply know there’s a problem,” he said. “Nobody is willing to take the first step. Well, we’ll take the first step.”
Permanent Supportive Housing
Despite the Reliable Place being up and running in Centralia for a decade, Mitchell said there’s still plenty of misunderstanding around what permanent supportive housing actually is.
“I’m disappointed — again — that when there are questions about services or facilities … nobody ever comes and asks us anything,” he said. “They do drive-bys … make assumptions, and then drive them back as facts. And we’ve never been included.”
In city council discussions around the project, commenters repeatedly equated it to low-income housing. And while Reliable Enterprises also operates low-income housing facilities, permanent supportive housing is set apart by its on-site case managers and range of services, which are tailored to the population each building serves.
For example, Reliable Enterprises’ proposed project would offer families and school-aged children tutoring services and computers with free internet access, Mitchell said. At the Reliable Place, a payee helps residents budget their money, staffers teach cooking classes, and mental health providers visited tenants on-site before the pandemic. Case managers have helped tenants navigate health care providers and school registration.
For tenants who may be ready to move out — or for other community members experiencing or at-risk of homelessness — Reliable Enterprises also offers a six-week “rent well” class. The course teaches participants how to be good renters, and staffers often accompany graduates in their meetings with landlords to help their chances of being approved to rent, often despite eviction or criminal history.
For Debbie Nix, whose homemade cookies earned her the informal title “House Mom,” the community Reliable Place offered was an asset in and of itself.
“When you have a disability, it’s hard to live in an apartment with people who aren’t,” said Nix, who’s lived at the facility for six years. “Because they don’t understand … (Here), people get it. They don’t judge. Because people who don’t have disabilities, they’re just really hard on you.”
Williford points to other success stories like Angel Loera, a former Reliable Place resident who now does maintenance work for the nonprofit. Before moving in, Loera went through the Offender Reentry Community Safety program (ORCS), which targets formerly-incarcerated individuals with developmental disabilities or mental health issues.
“I didn’t really think I was going to get a job anywhere because of the situations I’ve been in,” he said. “And Reliable actually gave me an opportunity to build skills, and they employed me.”
It’s not all success stories in Reliable Place, though. Housing programs and services manager Christi Lucas has the photos to prove it: units stuffed with clothing and food from residents who developed hoarding tendencies.
The nonprofit recently incurred an $8,000 bill for a nearly destroyed unit. And staffers have had to kick out tenants who continued to deal drugs, which “caused a lot of havoc on people here who are vulnerable,” according to Williford.
Mitchell says permanent supportive housing is simply a “messy business.” But to have a nonprofit willing to take it on, he said, is why the proposal could be so valuable to the city: Reliable Enterprises is willing to foot an occasional $8,000 bill, because “we’re addressing other things.”
“We’re willing to put the effort in to find grants. Which we did. Acquire the property to build. Which we did. And then go through the city process to get all the right permits … Which we did,” he said. “And at least the state of Washington Housing Trust Fund thought there was enough value in it to give us $8 million. So is the community going to say ‘are we going to try this?’ Or is it going to rub us the wrong way because it’s not bootstraps enough?”
Opponents have warned that a new permanent supportive housing building will attract more low-income residents to the community. Reliable Enterprises says that’s not the case, largely because the nonprofit has already identified its target population: over two dozen local families with kids in the Centralia School District.
The plan, according to Lucas, is to connect with families through Gather Church, which took over as the county’s coordinated entry provider this year. Coordinated entry is a strategy to identify and prioritize high-risk individuals for services, including shelter.
At the church, Meta Hogan regularly fields 10 to 15 calls a day from locals requesting housing assistance — from those living unsheltered, in vehicles, couch surfing, or in unsafe environments. She said a new permanent supportive housing facility would make a significant dent in the list of local families calling in.
Due to supply issues — the “housing hunger games,” as she puts it — those phone conversations often end up with Hogan talking callers through their existing options. The reality is, figuring out how to survive in an old RV with no running water may actually be easier than trying to find affordable housing in Lewis County.
Gather Church’s Pastor Cole Meckle says those phone conversations can go “something along the lines of ‘just how bad is the black mold? And do you have asthma?’”
“You’re trying to get people to hold on to whatever they have,” he said. “It sucks to have to have those conversations with people. My goodness, you want to know people can live in a home that doesn’t make them sick … But here we are, right?”
The way Hogan puts it, even if Gather Church gave each client $1,000 per month and eliminated every barrier to stable housing — mental health issues, substance use disorder, a criminal record or eviction history — the simple issue of supply would remain.
When units do become available, getting clients housed often requires a heart-to-heart between Gather Church staff and landlords.
“‘Why not give people a chance? Haven’t people given you a chance at some point in your life?’ Those are the kinds of conversations that end up changing people’s heart and mind,” Meckle said.
But a tight market — where landlords have plenty of renters to choose from — doesn’t incentivize landlords to take a risk.
With Reliable Enterprises’ project in the balance, the Centralia City Council is set to discuss Mitchell’s parking request in future meetings. But last week, Mitchell said he isn’t holding out hope that the council will change its mind.
The proposal, he said, looks like it will be scrapped, and the $8 million will go to some other project in the state, since there’s “plenty of need.”
In that case, Mitchell said he’ll be “disappointed. But not bitter.”