MOUNT VERNON — A panel of elected officials spoke Tuesday at the Skagit County Housing Summit about the work local governments have done on housing and homelessness, and what they could do better.
The mayors of the county’s four cities and county Commissioner Lisa Janicki said more is being done than earlier in the decade, but there is more work to do.
Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton said in Burlington alone, 150 apartments have been built in 2018-2019. In the decade preceding that, the city added zero new apartments, he said.
The same is true elsewhere in the county, according to the mayors.
“We’re building in Sedro-Woolley,” said Mayor Julia Johnson.
More and more developers are coming to the city with proposals for apartment complexes, and more multifamily housing is being built, she said.
She said the Sedro-Woolley City Council is working on approval for accessory dwelling units, which are small homes built on the same piece of land as a single-family house.
Anacortes Mayor Laurie Gere and Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau both touted their cities’ housing and homelessness plans, saying both have devoted time and energy to the housing issue.
Boudreau said the Mount Vernon City Council is considering amendments to city code to promote development of affordable apartments, and is working on removing restrictions to accessory dwelling units and townhouses.
Gere mentioned a proposed five-story apartment building as an example of the kind of dense housing she’s interested in supporting, though the project is facing pushback from some in the community.
Janicki said the county’s role in building housing is limited because the state’s Growth Management Act restricts dense housing to cities.
The county collects a small amount of money annually to spend on affordable housing and homeless services, but not enough to meet its needs.
“Public-private partnerships will be our solution,” she Janicki. “Government can’t do it alone.”
Boudreau said cities aren’t given a funding source to deal with housing or homeless services, and help from nonprofits, the faith community and residents is needed.
The panel agreed mental health and addiction services in the county are limited, and don’t do an adequate job bringing their services to the homeless.
“It takes caring and compassion and persistence to get someone to take that step,” Boudreau said.
Janicki said the county Planning Department is taking inventory of county properties that may have a “higher and better use” as housing or shelter.
One county property that would be prime for a temporary homeless shelter is the old jail in Mount Vernon, Sexton said.
Several other counties have used old jails this way, and he said it already has basic amenities and could be a relatively inexpensive way to offer overnight shelter.
“It’s a place where you can get a bed, a shower, a meal and get social services,” he said.
Other members of the panel disagreed, saying the jail is not the place of dignity and respect that the homeless deserve.
“It’s not a crime to be homeless, and it feels like a crime to treat them like criminals,” Janicki said.
Gere disagreed with Sexton’s characterization of cost, saying the old concrete building would be expensive to bring up to standards.
Sexton said in order to have conversations that lead to real action, elected officials and local leaders will need to get together for regular meetings with the goal of creating a countywide plan.
“We need to get in a room and start to make an action plan,” Sexton said.