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Local News

Council Backtracks After Peabody School Parents Voice Concerns About Housing Authority Project

Councilman Randy Rowse requests that the council revisit last week's approval of a grant for a low-income development to allow for public input

After an uproar from parents of students at Peabody Charter School, the Santa Barbara City Council took a second look Tuesday at a grant it approved last week for eight units of low-income housing on Upper State Street.

Last Tuesday, the seemingly mundane item — a $1.15 million grant to the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara for a project at 2904 State St. — took a surprise turn into a full-scale policy discussion about homelessness. The City Council eventually approved the grant to purchase the property, with Councilman Frank Hotchkiss and Councilwoman Michael Self voting against it.

After e-mails began circulating among parents from nearby Peabody school who felt left out of the process, Councilman Randy Rowse requested that the item be brought back to the council so that the public could have its say.

The project would provide eight units of housing and supportive services to formerly homeless people and would be operated by WillBridge, a Santa Barbara nonprofit that helps homeless people find housing.

After hours of public comment, however, the council came to a different conclusion than last week, voting unanimously to let the Housing Authority proceed with the financial portions of the project, but that leasing it to WillBridge would be contingent on the group having at least three public meetings with Peabody parents to hear their concerns. The group would come back in 90 days with a progress report, and the council would decide then whether to lease it WillBridge for formerly homeless people or the other option — to give the units to low-income people.

Rowse brought the project back before the council, so he was first on the dais to address it. Because the property’s use hadn’t changed, nearby residents weren’t required to be notified of the new tenants. Though no laws had been broken by not notifying residents, Rowse said he felt the city was called to higher standards than the private sector.

“I think this is a good project. But it’s not my neighborhood, it’s your neighborhood,” he told members of the public.

More information was available to the public Tuesday than had been the previous week, and residents began to get a clearer picture of who would be living in the units.

Lynnelle Williams, executive director of WillBridge, said the eight units would be for people looking for permanent supportive housing, not people directly off the streets. Unlike the transitional housing the program also offers, the State Street units would be used for people who have already been in housing for some time and are transitioning to the next phase of their lives.

Williams also presented a checklist of criteria that prospective residents must meet: Residents must be employed or enrolled in job training, pass a background check, agree to no drugs and alcohol on the premises, and have three personal references, among other criteria.

Two other WillBridge properties are in operation in other parts of the city, including one that is closer to Franklin Elementary School than the State Street project would be to Peabody.

Rob Pearson, executive director of the Housing Authority, began his statements by apologizing to the residents “who believe we’re pulling a fast one.” Dozens of projects with a similar mission have come through the approval process, without any uproar.

“For us, it was business as usual,” Pearson said. “We learned our lesson. ... Community input is important.”

Tuesday’s meeting had plenty of that input as nearly 40 San Roque residents, Peabody parents, homeless and mental health advocates, and even students from the school shared their thoughts with the council. From Peabody parents, the consensus seemed to center on the lack of notification. They also took issue with the proximity of the project to school. Most said they supported a facility of that type for the homeless, just not so close to an operating elementary school.

Peabody parent Craig Stewart said the area has experienced increased crime, tagging and a larger presence of homeless during the past 10 years. Principal Kate Ford said she was concerned about the campus being open, and thus becoming more like a public park in the evenings and on weekends. She said the homeless have wandered onto the property, frightening students.

“Our experience with the homeless has been less than positive,” Ford said. “It’s only reasonable that we have questions.”

Student Ben Spivak said he interviewed students from multiple grades and received similar answers when they were asked about the project.

“They said, ‘That’s too close, but a good idea,’” Spivak told the council.

In the future, the Housing Authority will need to relocate a detox facility from where it’s being housed at Casa Esperanza, and the council said that project could benefit from notifications as well. Pearson said projects that have any kind of “program” element, be it on-site mental health or drug and alcohol rehab services, the public should be notified.

Self asked Williams about a fire that occurred in the group’s Montecito Street facility on Jan. 20. A young woman had come to WillBridge from Casa Esperanza and had a “crisis situation,” Williams said, adding that no one was injured and there was minimal damage.

After considering all of the rigors residents will go through, Councilman Grant House asked Williams what would distinguish the residents from people already living in the neighborhood.

“There’s no distinguishing,” she said. “They go to the theater, they go to the ballet. ... They’ve established themselves very well.”

Councilman Dale Francisco said that in the past, the item would have been approved with little discussion from the council, and he was glad for the forum. He, too, said he has noticed an increase in panhandling in the area, but “I tend to think that the people sleeping in MacKenzie Park are going to be more of a problem than the (WillBridge) residents.”

The entire council agreed that increased notifications of sensitive projects would be a good thing going forward.

“Part of our problem is that we aren’t getting our message out,” Mayor Helene Schneider said, acknowledging that when the homeless do wander onto the school’s property, it can be scary for young children. Now, she said, the onus is on the nonprofit to reach out to the neighbors and convince them the eight units belong there.

“WillBridge is going to have to prove themselves to you,” Schneider told the audience.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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