Paul Lambros is excited. In the past four years, Plymouth Housing Group, of which he is the executive director, has raised $52 million to create affordable housing for the homeless, and the money keeps rolling in. On Wed., Sept. 5, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced that the 2008 budget would allocate $3.5 million to the nonprofit developer from the city's General Fund to help Plymouth purchase property for the construction of a Belltown housing complex.
This money is especially significant because it skipped the normal channels of allocation and went directly to Plymouth. Normally, when affordable housing funding is available, city government puts out a Notice of Available Funds, and various housing organizations submit proposals for what they would do with the money.
But this time the mayor's office says it felt that a fast-track approach was justified. "A number of factors combined to create a narrow window of opportunity," says Joanne LaTuchie, spokesperson for the Seattle Office of Housing. "There were some extra resources earmarked from the Mayor's  budget that had to be allocated before the application deadline on Friday [Sept. 7]. And, of course, there was a quick timeline for purchasing the property, and downtown property is so hard to come by."
For Lambros, the mayor's additional funding was critical in Plymouth's decision to go ahead with the project. "To purchase the property, we had to put down a $200,000 non-refundable deposit by the end of September, and then hope we could secure the rest of funding by January 2008," Lambros says. "Our board was somewhat reluctant to make this gamble, but the mayor's funding tipped the scales."
When the money does come in, it will be used to purchase the southeast corner lot on First Ave. and Cedar St. in Belltown, where Plymouth will build a seven-story complex with 84 residential units, all of which will be dedicated to providing housing for homeless individuals. Inside the complex, residents will have access to mental health care and substance-abuse support service, as well as support from a full-time building staff and individualized attention from case managers.
The process by which Plymouth accepts tenants removes many of the prerequisites that often prevent homeless people from qualifying for affordable housing. Plymouth takes what is known as the "housing first" approach. Applicants do not need to have clean criminal records, a stable renter's history, or proof of freedom from drug or alcohol addiction. "You take a person where they are, and then you provide the level of services they need to succeed," LaTuchie says.
Originally, this model created considerable controversy. When the Downtown Emergency Service Center opened the 1811 Eastlake Project for housing chronic alcoholics, many were outraged at the prospect of extending housing to substance users. But according to LaTuchie, the project has been cost-effective and successful. "None of the residents have returned to streets, and many of them are now employed," she says. "Those are really phenomenal results."
The success of the 1811 Eastlake Project and other projects using the housing first paradigm has convinced the the mayor's office that this is an effective strategy for getting people off the street. "The mayor's office has indicated that, when allocating funds for affordable housing, priority will be given to proposals that use the housing-first model," LaTuchie says.
The funding for Plymouth's new development is not in the bag yet. As part of the 2008 budget, the allocation will have to be approved this fall by the Seattle City Council, which receives the mayor's budget on Sept. 17.
Lambros certainly hopes it will: "This project will be another big step in moving homeless people off the streets and into better lives."