Council hears panel recommendations on group homes

A 15-member blue-ribbon panel tasked with studying neighborhood concerns over the placement of high-risk and high-needs individuals, housing, and service providers has recommended city leaders take a more comprehensive and aggressive approach to dealing with group homes in Tacoma, according to a discussion Tuesday during the noon City Council study session.

“Panel members concluded, consistent with the council’s thinking, that there are neighborhoods in Tacoma with more than their fair share of facilities and homes serving high-risk and high-needs individuals,” said Rick Allen, president of United Way of Pierce County and chairman of the panel. “The panel also agreed with the council supposition that this concentration has a negative impact on those neighborhoods, and that certain changes were likely to make a positive impact.”

The panel presented its findings in a 26-page report outlining seven recommendations to the council.

First, the city should develop a thorough inventory of facilities providing services to high-risk and high-needs individuals, including homes owned by landlords with a history of renting to high-risk populations, faith-based programs, non-profit programs, and non-conforming-use properties.

Second, the city should require a Memo of Understanding (MOU), in cooperation with the neighborhood, by those providing program services or renting multiple properties in areas with high concentrations of high-risk and high-needs individuals, as well as group housing facilities that provide services anywhere in the city.

“One of the most frustrating things for citizens is that there is no MOU with these facilities, or if there is one, there’s no clear grievance process if the MOU breaks down,” said Allen.

Third, the city needs to develop a clear and consistent city-wide grievance procedure, including a commonly understood “input point” at the neighborhood level, an appeal point above the neighborhood level, and a clear “final decision” point.

Fourth, the city should place a higher priority on well-trained and community-connected Community Liaison Officers (CLOs) in areas of high-risk and high-needs concentration.

“The big message from neighborhoods was, ‘We like CLOs and have respect for them. They work well for us, and we want to keep them,’” said Allen. “CLOs are highly valued, and the city needs to be careful about withdrawing them from neighborhoods.”

Fifth, the city should place a higher priority on directing resources to enforce existing regulations that apply to housing and other facilities in areas of high-risk and high-needs concentration. Similarly, the city should create an aggressive structure for billing service calls and fining violators, and establish a licensing and permitting process for all group facilities in areas of high-risk and high-needs concentration.

Also, the panel recommended a limit on the use of the so-called “grandfather clause” for allowing non-conforming use of property in areas of high-risk and high-needs concentration.

Finally, councilmembers should develop a city-wide high-risk and high-needs placement coordination process with all appropriate local, state, and federal programs.

“There is a lack of coordination in terms of releasing these high-risk and high-needs individuals,” said Allen. “The city and neighborhoods are left out of the planning. A facility might be acceptable to the person being released, and acceptable to the Department of Corrections, but the neighborhood is left out of the mix.”

The report also cited several factors that impact and influence the problem of particular neighborhoods carrying the burden of high-risk and high-needs individuals, housing, and service providers, and most notably cited market factors.

According to the report, many high-risk and high-needs individuals and service providers live in neighborhoods where rents and overhead are more affordable. That said, even good providers who adhere to all best practices and consider the community around them can have a negative neighborhood impact if too many are located within close proximity. “There does appear to be a ‘tipping point,’ after which problems become chronic,” reads the report.

“It is a market reality that few residents in these areas have the financial muscle to marshal a successful legal challenge to placement of facilities in their neighborhoods,” the report continues.

“The panel felt like this was a complex issue, and no single answer was the answer,” added Allen. “But we think that if some of these steps are taken, it’s going to go a long way for neighborhoods to feel like they are listened to.”

Tuesday’s recommendations were made one week after councilmembers voted to extend the city’s current moratorium on the development of group homes, group residential facilities, lodging houses and emergency and transitional housing for another 180 days. The current six-month moratorium, which went into effect May 17, was scheduled to expire Nov. 15. The city established the moratorium to prevent the continued concentration of certain kinds of special needs housing within the city limits, and to allow time to review existing policies and regulations of these facilities.

“This is an excellent blueprint for us to build from,” said Councilmember Rick Talbert. He suggested that the city use its Rental Housing Licensing Agreement to assist with enforcement of MOUs. “We need to put it in place to give the city an additional hammer to encourage proper behavior.”

Allen agreed, but questioned its effectiveness. “While that was a good effort, it’s not getting the job done,” he said. “There needs to be some beefing up of the enforcement.”

Councilmember Jonathan Phillips was also pleased with the report. “We need to start using some of these tools,” he said. “It’s a well-thought approach.”
“I’m pleasantly surprised that a complex issue was not oversimplified,” said Councilmember Mike Lonergan. “It sounds like you got enough input from the neighborhoods to make some of these statements today.”