By Nicholas Johnson

A judge on Monday (Jan. 31, 2022) granted the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) motion to intervene as a defendant in a lawsuit that aims to stop the DESC’s permanent supportive housing project planned for downtown Burien.

Arguing that the DESC’s housing project “will not provide affordable housing,” four plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the city of Burien in late December 2021 in King County Superior Court seeking an order prohibiting the city from including the project in its Affordable Housing Demonstration Program, which provides flexibility in certain development regulations in exchange for affordable housing.

The lawsuit’s lead plaintiff is Burien resident and former city council candidate John White, followed by Tortas Locas restaurant owner Jose Luis Rangel Olivera, Burien Towing owner Lynette Storer and commercial property owner David Burke. Burke’s property and Olivera and Storer’s businesses are all located within 1,000 feet of the housing project’s planned site at 801 SW 150th St. in downtown Burien, according to the lawsuit, while White owns a nearby condo at the Burien Town Square Condominiums, which he says is within 1,000 feet of the project site.

The city did not object to the DESC’s motion to intervene, but the plaintiffs opposed it, arguing that the Seattle-based non-profit “does not have a direct legal interest in the outcome of this matter” and that the city would “adequately represent any and all potential interests that the DESC may claim.”

In his Monday order granting the DESC’s motion, Judge Samuel S. Chung found that the DESC does have an interest in the case – specifically “its proposed project to provide 95 units of affordable supportive housing within the City of Burien.”

Chung also found that the outcome of the case “may as a practical matter impair or impeded (sic) its interests in that project,” and that the DESC’s interests “are not adequately represented by the City of Burien.”

In a Jan. 27 response to the plaintiffs’ arguments opposing the motion to intervene, the DESC explained why it believes the city cannot adequately represent its perspective and its interests.

“Meaning no disrespect to the City – DESC is the expert in the housing needs of the chronically homeless population that DESC specializes in,” the DESC wrote. “The City’s interest is in having its city council’s decisions sustained, but the concrete harm in dollars, delay, and inability to serve clients is an ‘interest’ unique to DESC.”

The DESC also explained how it believes the project would be impaired or impeded if the court ultimately finds that the project is ineligible for the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program.

“If this Court were to rule in Plaintiffs’ favor, DESC would be required to redesign its project, potentially being required to install balconies for each unit, being required to install underground parking which is extremely expensive and unneeded by its tenants, losing units in its building, and making the project less functional,” the DESC wrote, noting that a redesign would add “tens of thousands of dollars” in cost to the project and put its active building permit at risk. “That process would delay the start of construction and the opening of the project and would prolong the homelessness of 95 individuals.”

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that supportive housing and affordable housing are “distinctly different types of housing” and that the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program “only authorizes projects that provide affordable – not supportive – housing.

“Plaintiffs and the concerned citizens of Burien wish to stop the development of projects that do not meet the standards of the Affordable Housing Program (sic) and that fail to provide affordable housing in the City of Burien,” the plaintiffs wrote in their lawsuit.

In its response to the lawsuit, the DESC argued that “‘affordable’ housing may or may not be supportive, and ‘supportive’ housing is almost always but may not necessarily be ‘affordable.’”

In a declaration, the DESC’s executive director, Daniel Malone, argued that the DESC project is both supportive and affordable, and conforms with the Affordable Housing Demonstration Program’s definition of affordable as well as the definition of affordable housing under state law, specifically RCW 36.70A.030.

“DESC’s client (sic) typically have incomes from 0 to 15% of the AMI,” or area median income, Malone wrote in his declaration. “The tenants will sign leases and will pay rent. That rent will be not more than 30% of their individual incomes.”

In supportive housing, onsite case managers help tenants access mental-health and substance-use-disorder treatment, attend medical appointments, manage medications, obtain bus passes, keep units clean and pay rent on time. Tenants also have access to onsite meals, activities, therapeutic groups and crisis management services.

In its Jan. 27 filing, the DESC argues that the presence of supportive services does not prevent the project from providing affordable housing.

“DESC has proven that the most effective way to help them escape a life of homelessness is to provide them with not just a place they can afford to live, but also with services that help them stabilize their lives,” the DESC wrote. “The fact that DESC provides such services in each of its housing projects does not prevent those projects from being ‘affordable housing.’”

In June 2021, the Burien City Council voted 6-1 to accept the DESC project into its Affordable Housing Demonstration Program. On Dec. 16, city staff approved the project’s design with conditions, granting several departures from design standards and agreeing to various zoning-code accommodations.

A trial is currently set for Dec. 27, 2022. The project, which is due to open in spring 2023, would be the DESC’s first permanent supportive housing project outside of Seattle.

 

Nicholas Johnson (he/him) is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who grew up in Boulevard Park, graduated from Highline High School and studied journalism at Western Washington University. Send news tips, story ideas and positive vibes to nicholas.j[email protected].