A split Pasco City Council voted down the sale of property Catholic Charities hoped to use to build a 52-unit apartment for people and families who have experienced chronic homelessness.
Council members Barajas, Roach, and Maloney voted in favor of the sale while Serrano, Alvarado, Martinez, and Milne voted against. (You can watch video of the meeting here.)
The City may have opened themselves up to a potential discrimination lawsuit in the process.
City Attorney Eric Ferguson advised council that the city is bound by the same federal and state statutes any private citizen would be in selling their property, including the Fair Housing Act and Americans With Disability Act.
“We have a protected class of people here—people with disabilities,” said Zahra Roach. “We’re not saying ‘no’ to just anyone. The city council is responsible for that liability for the entire city.“
Beyond the liability question, Councilman Maloney said Catholic Charities told him if the city voted down the sale, they would likely purchase property from a private owner in the same area. In that case, the city would have no say at all.
“The reality is that this will still happen in East Pasco through a private sale that we have no control over,” Maloney said. “If Catholic Charities buys from a private land seller, the additional requirements that we have put in our contract will not be enforced.”
As part of the purchase and sale agreement, the City of Pasco had negotiated terms that include a sitewide syringe exchange ban, accountability for residents’ conduct within two mile radius, building security and monitoring, minimum staffing including on-call staff, cooperation and partnership with the Pasco Police department, and guarantee transportation for residents’ daily needs will be provided by the facility.
The weight of the decision clearly fell hard on council member Ruben Alvarado, whose district and neighborhood would be the site of the apartment, and whose day-to-day work even overlaps with that of Catholic Charities.
Alvarado is Community Impact Manager for the Tierra Vida Community, which describes its purpose as providing affordable, quality homes for working families of ethnic, generational, and economic diversity.
“My opinion is that Catholic Charities’ model is a good one, and it uses best practices... and that Catholic Charities will be a good partner,” Alvarado said.
However, he added to that sentiment: “I was not elected to work solely on my opinion. I was elected to work on behalf of the citizens of my district, and so I am against this, in support of the people of my district,” he said.
Councilmember Pete Serrano echoed Alvarado’s difficulty in making the decision.
“Based on what we’ve worked with Catholic Charities, this is—in my opinion—the best deal. This is the best opportunity we have to move forward who is intended to partner with us. In the event that another private property comes up for sale, we will have no say,” he said. “That said, I’m compelled by my civic duty as a representative.”
Roach indirectly refuted the appeal by Alvarado, Serrano, and Martinez to need to listen to the voices of their constituents, including the throng packing the room.
“There are a lot of voices here opposing this,” she said. “How many people who are homeless are here advocating for themselves?”
Mayor Pro-Tem Blanche Barajas spoke directly to her own personal history in expressing her support for the sale.
“I was almost homeless.” she said. “My landlord allowed me to stay for almost a year. I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck. I’m a single mother. We need to look out for all of Pasco. This is a very dear to my heart situation because I lived it. I do believe Pasco needs it.”
Councilmember Roach attempted to counter misinformation that had emerged surrounding the project.
“There is a misconception that people are bussed into our city and brought here for these services,” she said. “85% of people in our community experiencing homelessness are coming from our city. I know there are many people who have been priced out of the rental market. We have 97% rental saturation rate. It is possible there are people in our community who are experiencing homelessness just from the cost of housing.”
Like many of her fellow council members, Roach visited other similar facilities run by Catholic Charities. She shared what she learned.
Roach said they spoke to people near the Yakima facility, including a mom walking with her kids, neighbors, students, and people walking by on the street, asking their opinions on Catholic Charities’ complex. She said they described the impact on the surrounding community as positive. “There wasn’t a single negative comment,” she said.
Roach also did some research on police calls, finding that between 2011 and 2017, 335 calls were made to the police prior to building the facility. “Since the building was built, 49 calls have been made and those have been for emergency medical services, nothing related to violent or drug related,” she said.
The highly attended and sometimes tense meeting was a baptism-by-fire new Pasco mayor Saul Martinez, who needed to repeatedly ask the crowd not to shout interruptions while others spoke.
The gravity and emotion surrounding the vote was visible. Multiple council members mentioned they’d spent multiple sleepless nights and several described themselves as undecided until the very moment of the vote.