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Downtown Dilemma 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he transition has begun to turn three major downtown low-income apartment houses into businesses and higher-income housing.





Tenants began moving out of the New Madison Apartments this week as the city's sudden crush facing the evictions of nearly 200 low-income downtown residents continues.





Eviction for residents at the Otis Hotel, across the street from the New Madison, is scheduled for August 1. Developers, city officials and social service agencies have been working in crisis mode to find new housing in a tight market.





The Spokane City Council on Monday voted unanimously to transfer $250,000 of reserve funds into an account that is intended to help with moving expenses for low-income downtown residents facing eviction.





Renovation is in the works for three buildings on West First Avenue that have recently changed hands (or are about to). The block-and-a-half stretch of West First containing the New Madison Apartments, Otis Hotel and Commercial Building has become something of a ghetto over the years, home to the elderly on tiny pensions, people with mental disabilities and offenders recently released from prison - especially sex offenders.





The displacement of as many as 200 tenants from three buildings at once has exposed Spokane's lack of low-income housing, prompting Monday's council action, last week's disbursement of $10,000 by the mayor and the formation of a low-income housing task force urged to find speedy answers.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & ary Pollard, president of the downtown neighborhood association for the last decade (and a candidate for City Council this summer), is among a number of voices noting this current low-income housing crunch has been hiding in plain sight for years as the city has simply ignored the poor downtown.





Marty Dickinson, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership (Spokane's renamed Chamber of Commerce), agrees.





Citing low-income buildings such as the Norman, the Jefferson and the Saranac that have closed or been remodeled in recent years, she says, "Those living conditions were not conditions we expect anybody to have to live in but since it was out of sight, out of mind, it was easier to keep the problem at a distance."





Now, as Chris Batten, the renovator of the New Madison and potential renovator of the Otis told the City Council on July 9, "This isn't the tip of the iceberg. This is the iceberg."





The council voted 7-0 to move the funds into a contractual services account even though its planned tour of the Otis on July 13 was cancelled at the last minute. The council was exploring an option to use the Otis as something of a short-term emergency shelter until the housing crisis eases.





Council President Joe Shogan had told The Inlander last week the tour was important because "the council needs to be aware of the condition of the Otis. If we are placing people into a dwelling, we certainly don't want them in a substandard dwelling."





The Inlander was unable to reach Batten by deadline.





Shogan says he visited the Otis on his own Friday, getting a cook's tour from the building manager.





"Basically I found there are approximately 89 people living there in 85 units," Shogan says. "The Otis has about 152 units, roughly speaking. There are nine or 10 ready to rent that are in good shape and another five needing minor work. There are about 15 that need what I would call a partial rebuild and the rest I have down as uninhabitable."





"The Otis is an old building and needs lots of work. It's habitable but not a long-range solution," Shogan says.





Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Mary Verner says the $250,000 authorized by the council Monday night is specifically to be used for help with moving, providing funds to cover expenses such as first- and last-month's rent, damage deposits, pet deposits and the like for displaced residents on tight, fixed incomes. "The type of charges it takes to get yourself out of one unit and into another," Verner says.





Some downtown residents live on as little as $400 a month, social service workers have said. Verner adds that Catholic Charities and Batten have had discussions about arranging for case workers to set up at the Otis and help get tenants through the process of finding new living arrangements and keeping the old hotel open while that work progresses.





Shogan adds, "The fact Chris Batten is considering leaving the building open is a credit to him but it will cost $40,000 to $45,000 a month to do that. This is an extremely difficult problem. You'll be investing your money in something that later would be gutted."





The City Council this week also approved a resolution from Verner asking the Affordable Housing Task Force to check out a state law that requires developers to help fund low-income housing stock.





"I am already receiving comments from the real estate community saying 'let the market be the guiding force here,'" Verner says. "I am all for that if the market has a correcting mechanism, but what is the free-market method for placing sex offenders?"





The state law was passed in 1990, Verner says. "I am sure the city of Spokane was aware of it. Now that we are in crisis mode, to put it on the table is a bit belated, but I expect this will be a recurring issue and want us to consider it as a tool."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ickinson wasted no time driving the Affordable Housing Task Force at its inaugural meeting last week. "There is no lamenting," she says. "We are here to work."


By Monday, Dickinson says, the task force members were beginning to shape short-term and long-term issues.





In the short term, she says, task force members recommend changing the eviction time frame from 30 days to as long as 180 days for low-income residents facing displacement as long as they stay current in their rent. Given the tight low-income housing market, and the obstacles to placing some tenants, this strategy alone would allow people to remain sheltered as the work with social service agencies to relocate.





"This is an immediate fix," Dickinson says.





The task force draws a wide range of perspectives from Dickinson's chamber-of-commerce view to downtown building owners, developers, realtors, legislators, the Department of Corrections, social service agencies and churches.





These are not people who normally sit around the same table, Dickinson says, "I think that in itself, and to have candid conversation, is a step in the right direction."





The other reality about the task force, she adds, is realizing the term "low-income" covers a diverse group. "And the reality is this: Housing authorities or agencies can find housing for the mentally ill or the elderly or those on a tight budget financially," Dickinson says. "If people have a criminal background, it makes it very difficult to place them."

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