Shelter snag

When the Chico City Council voted 7­0 to free up $500,000 to purchase land to build a homeless shelter, it looked as if the less fortunate among us would finally have a permanent roof over their heads for the first time since the Salvation Army lost use of the National Guard armory three years ago. Since then, 12 churches have provided a rotating shelter in the winter months. The churches told the council this year they wouldn’t continue to bear that cross if the city didn’t move forward on a shelter of its own. When the Planning Commission approved the use permit for the proposed shelter, it looked like a done deal, a win-win, a common-sense solution for the homeless.

Now come Councilmember Rick Keene and Mayor Dan Herbert, voicing concerns that a city- and taxpayer-supported shelter will compete unfairly with private, faith-based help like that offered by the Jesus Center, which requires a dose of the Good Book with its handout and reserves the right to refuse service to the obnoxious. On May 7 Keene wrote the council a letter in which he says that using taxpayer dollars to help the homeless will not “transform both our hearts and our own perception of the city we live in,” as private funding will. Keene’s letter has Councilmember Coleen Jarvis, who heads the city’s homeless task force, fired up. At that group’s last meeting, on May 14, Mayor Herbert showed up to be, as he told me, “a fly on the wall” and defend Keene. But he was less than inconspicuous and upon being noticed started buzzing that Keene meant well, that the fight to provide shelter to the homeless was too politicized and that the sides weren’t as far apart as some assumed. We’ll see when the matter comes back before the council June 5 for final approval of the land purchase.

Who should we build housing for, low-income families or the elderly stuck on fixed incomes? The city estimates there are about 1,300 low-income families (mostly single moms raising kids) who spend at least half of their wages on housing. There are also an estimated 500 seniors (mostly single women on Social Security) who spend at least half of their wages on housing. It’s not a pleasant choice, but that very discussion took place at the May 15 City Council meeting. A Long Beach-based developer called Simpson Housing Solutions, which bills itself as “one of the nation’s premier developers and financiers of affordable family and seniors housing,” has come to Chico offering to build either type of development. Simpson wants to partner with the city, which is required by law to spend 20 percent of its redevelopment funding on low-income housing. Simpson is expert at applying for low-income tax credits from the state to help offset the cost of the development. It does all the paperwork, which can be mighty burdensome, and hires local contractors to do the building. But there is great competition for those state tax credits. Rick Kerr, representing Simpson, told the council the company would be willing to build homes for either families or the elderly, but the state will not give tax credits for a mixture of the two. Fact is, Kerr said, elderly folks don’t like living near kids.

That came as a disappointment to some. Councilmember Steve Bertagna thought it was sad, noting that his elderly neighbor “throws bones to the dogs” and imparts sage wisdom to the kids. Local businessman Alan Chamberlain, apparently taking a page from Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village, suggested it would be good to have seniors around these “fatherless families,” because the old folks could keep an eye on the kids and make sure they stay out of trouble. That argument raised the ugly specter that single-mother homes create children with criminal tendencies, which did not sit well with Jarvis, who raised her kids as a single mom. Kerr noted that qualifying for tax credits for family housing is easier. But three members of the council—Bertagna, Keene and Herbert (Councilmember Larry Wahl disqualified himself because he owns a business within 500 yards of the property where such a project might go near the Safeway on East Avenue)—maintained the existing neighborhood would object to low-income family housing and pushed for the old-folks’ homes. In the end, after much confusion, hand wringing, eye-rolling and three or four motions, the council voted unanimously to encourage Simpson to move ahead and look for a place where it can build either senior of family housing.