Friday, March 23 , 2018, 9:23 am | Fair 55º


Ron Fink: Marks House in Lompoc a Failure by Agencies to Provide Healthful Living Conditions

The Marks House in Lompoc is a 19-bed transitional shelter for families between homelessness and stable housing. Until 2011, it was owned and operated by the Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation (LHCDC), a poorly managed nonprofit. LHCDC purchased the Marks House with city, county and federal taxpayer funds in 1997.

What follows is a chronology of missteps that is leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer assets and intolerable living conditions for the residents of the facility.

When LHCDC announced that it intended to disband and finally collapsed in 2011, another operator for the Marks House was needed quickly. According to public records, “on Dec. 6, 2011, council approved a recommendation of the Human Services Commission to designate Good Samaritan as an interim shelter provider for the Marks House, if the then current owner, LHCDC, should no longer continue its operation of the shelter.” On Jan. 12, 2012, the city was notified LHCDC would cease operating the Marks House.

“On Jan. 17, 2012, the city received the executed deed-in-lieu from LHCDC, transferring ownership of the Marks House property to the city. While the agreement includes a requirement for Good Samaritan to complete minor repairs and maintenance (less than $250 per single item), costs in excess of $250 for repairs, maintenance or capital repairs will continue to be an obligation of the city, as owner.”

Fast forward to March 23, 2015, when the planning director received a memo from the Community Development Program manager reporting that “there are numerous habitability quality standards and health- and safety-related work items that need to be completed,” thus the net value of the property, originally appraised at $225,000, was now assessed at a negative $28,000 for a loss of $253,000 to taxpayers.

So, how did it get this bad? Well, back in July 2012 during a public hearing, Good Samaritan Shelters, now the operator of Marks House, requested Community Development Block Grant funds to repair the facility. Then-Mayor John Linn suggested that all the capital improvement requests could be funded from federal Home Investment Partnership Act (HOME) funds.

Even though staff could not confirm that HOME funds were available or could even be used for this purpose, Linn persisted and the request was pulled from the CDBG budget. In the end, Linn’s interpretation of how federal housing funds could be used was wrong, but in his typical style, “John facts” were the only thing that mattered and he convinced other council members to support his effort.

Later that year in November, repairs for the Marks House were back on the council agenda. City staff had correctly questioned Linn's recommendation earlier in July — HOME funds could not be used to repair the Marks House property; CDBG was the appropriate source of funds for the much-needed repairs.

Then-Councilwoman Ashley Costa was concerned, saying, “First, I made a decision with inaccurate information. Second, it didn’t even come back to us. Third, it was my understanding that those monies wouldn’t be given to other projects until we confirmed that information and that’s not what happened.”

The council finally appropriated the CDBG funding that had been requested several months earlier at that meeting.

But how did the Marks House get to the point that it was worth less than nothing?

From the mid-1990s until 2012, LHCDC was the primary provider of housing for low-income and homeless residents in Lompoc. Even though other organizations such as Good Samaritan and Peoples’ Self-Help Housing tried to enter the market, they were overlooked. As one former council member put it, “We want a local nonprofit to run our shelter programs.”

Many people began raising red flags concerning the management of LHCDC; the “good old boys” on the council had ignored earlier warnings but finally, after an election replaced two of them with fresh members — Bob Lingl and Cecelia Martner — the city realized that LHCDC wasn't performing what it had contractually agreed to provide.

But that doesn’t explain how the city could allow the Marks House to deteriorate for so long. What did they know and when did they know it? Certainly Good Samaritan appears to have informed them immediately that emergency repair monies would be needed. In fact, they now estimate that repair costs will be over $250,000. That sounds like the building needs to be gutted and rebuilt.

It is incomprehensible how this property was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair and still be used to house people. Shouldn’t a transitional shelter at least be clean, warm and dry?

Where were the regulatory agencies that have a duty to inspect these facilities? If staff was able to conclude in 2015 that “there are numerous habitability quality standards and health- and safety-related work items that need to be completed,” shouldn’t the place have been closed until repairs were made? These conditions didn’t happen overnight.

The Marks House was, by all measures, a failure of multiple agencies to provide healthful living conditions for the neediest people.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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