A Longview property owner is renovating an eyesore on Florida Street to create a home for recently released prison inmates, but neighbors are concerned that the project would devalue their property and increase crime.
“The place I bought my home from said this will hurt my property significantly, and that irritates me,” P.J. Jensen, who lives across the alley from the proposed location, told the homeowner at a community meeting Tuesday.
During the meeting, Housing Administrator for the Washington Department of Corrections Robert Story told about a dozen Longview residents that the property owner of 3149 Florida St. applied to be part of a DOC housing voucher program that pays up to the first three months rent for newly released offenders.
“For those that have earned the right to come out (of prison), they’re coming out no matter what, but we don’t want them to be homeless. From a community safety standpoint, that’s the worst thing we could do,” Story said.
Property owner Matt Gray said he applied to be a part of the voucher program because his Christian faith called him to help those who need it. His nonprofit, Forgiven House, already has a transitional house in Kelso.
“As a landlord, I have the means to help, so I felt obligated to help,” he said. He told The Daily News that he didn’t want any attention or recognition for the efforts.
The Longview location would house up to eight male residents but would not allow arsonists, violent criminals or sex offenders, Gray said. In addition, there is a zero tolerance policy for drugs or alcohol of any kind. Violators would be expelled, he said.
He added that there is no time limit on residents, but most don’t stay longer than six months in his Kelso location. They get back on their feet, get a job and move into a new place, he said.
Multiple people at the meeting said they were worried about the possible impact on neighborhood traffic, property values and residential crime. Many of them said they were already nervous living alone in the area due to prowlers and burglars.
Gray responded that he plans to install six security cameras around the property, but he said he is dismayed to hear the future tenants automatically branded as “lowlifes.” Oftentimes they are more respectful and helpful than the average renter, he said.
“I don’t want what you guys are worried about happening any more than you do because I own this property,” he told the group of community members.
Some of the concern was related to an Oxford House transitional home for women already located on the same block. Oxford Houses are part of a national organization focused on recovery and sobriety.
An Oxford House manager told the city that it operates six transitional houses in Longview and six in Kelso, but it is impossible to count how many other independent transitional houses there are in the area because they are not required to report to the city, Longview Community Development Director John Brickey said.
The meeting Tuesday was a chance for the city and community to weigh-in about the voucher program application before Story makes a final decision. However, as a private property owner, Gray can rent to whomever he wants, Story said. Neighborhood resident Jensen said he plans to circulate a petition against the house anyway.
Longview’s only real authority in the matter is inspecting the building to make sure it is up to code, which it is, Brickey said. In the past, the property was crumbling and hazardous, one Longview resident said. He and a couple of other meeting attendees said they appreciate the amount of work that Gray had put into cleaning up the building and property.
The city can also send a community impact statement to the DOC to comment on two specific concerns in regards to the housing voucher program: the number of other similar houses in the immediate area, and the availability of services in the area. But Brickey said he will report to the Longview City Council that he didn’t think there were enough concerns to warrant submitting an impact statement.
“Neither one of those issues seem to rise to the level of concern in the meeting last night,” Brickey said Wednesday.
The City Council will review Brickey’s recommendation and then decide whether it wants to submit a statement to the DOC. Then Robert Story will either accept or deny Gray’s application to be part of the housing voucher program.
Gray said his goal is to give the former inmates a chance to thrive.
“I’ve seen people start their own businesses and succeed. I’ve seen people get jobs and move out time and time again because they become a member of society.”