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Oct 11, 2022 7 min read

Passing on the bucks

Passing on the bucks
What’s the proper metaphor? Leaving money on the table? Money going up in smoke? Why not both?! (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)

On his way out the door last month, former Spokane Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services Director John Hall sent 27 pages of recommendations to the Mayor’s office. He also raised concerns about tens of millions of unspent housing dollars.

Almost exactly a month after his resignation from the top job directing Spokane’s Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services (NHHS), we now have a window into the dysfunction former director John Hall witnessed within city government.

RANGE has obtained a 27-page memo sent to Mayor Nadine Woodward and City Administrator Johnnie Perkins on Sept. 30, Hall’s last day on the job.

In the memo, Hall makes recommendations for how to fix the embattled office, which oversees three separate departments ranging from neighborhood outreach to housing access and the city’s homelessness response.

Hall also made detailed claims that the City of Spokane is out of compliance on a number of grant programs that should be channeling millions in federal dollars for affordable housing and other initiatives to combat Spokane’s housing and homelessness crisis, but which are either languishing unspent in city coffers or haven’t been requested at all.

Unlike Cupid Alexander, who held Hall’s role for about seven months and left in June 2021, Hall did not accuse the administration of racism in its practices. The memo does not offer any personal motive for Hall’s departure.

Hall’s feelings do align with Alexander’s parting comments about an NHHS that is understaffed and overworked.

Taken together, the accounts suggest that, in the more than year that passed between Alexander’s departure and Hall’s, the city has been unable to shore up staffing gaps that grind even seemingly routine tasks like executing an approved contract to a crawl.

Not only has the problem not gotten any better, it may be getting worse.

The memo

The document has three main sections. The first is a four-page narrative of the problems Hall witnessed within his office, the mayor’s office and city council, along with his suggestions on how to fix them.

Hall takes pains to say his former bosses did not ask for these recommendations, but that he’s providing them anyway: “The following unsolicited observations and recommendations are aimed to be non-partisan, honest and respectful,” he writes, “I simply want to see a high performing enterprise leading the way, especially in housing affordability and availability, homelessness and self-sufficiency.”

These will not be one-time fixes, Hall believes, but an ongoing process improvement focused on “hot issues & recommendations … that should be addressed continuously by the mayor’s executive team”

Hall’s list includes several specific issues that have caused tens of millions of dollars of federal grant money to build more housing, ease the burden of housing prices, and address the economic factors of homelessness to go either unspent by the city or unclaimed from available funds — along with specific strategies to maximize those dollars coming to Spokane and get those dollars actually flowing to projects.

He also cites an overall “lack of urgency to be results driven during this homelessness crisis” among administrative staff, and specifically “a separatist mentality” in the Community Housing and Human Services (CHHS) department — a division of NHHS — “that is not collaborative.”

Hall suggests taking CHHS out from under NHHS and making it its own cabinet-level department reporting directly to the mayor and city administrator, “so that the city administrator can hold its leadership accountable.” (He even suggests changing the department names, as “CHHS” and “NHHS” are so similar they cause confusion. To that we say, we hear you buddy.)

While most of the letter is aimed at the mayor and her staff, Hall also criticized City Council members for blurring the lines between the administrative role of the mayor’s office and the legislative role of the city council. He cited council’s active hand in Camp Hope (which he refers to as “the squatters on Washington State Department of Transportation right of way”) as “one such overreach.”

Outside of housing and homelessness, Hall said he is concerned for staff within the Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS), which acts as a liaison between the city government and Spokane’s 29 neighborhood councils and community assemblies. In Hall’s mind, the structure is “dysfunctional at best and often exposes staff to toxic and intolerable verbal abuse from the public,” he writes, “Staff may be better served reporting directly to the legislative branch.”

Hall’s memo goes into detail about specific dollar amounts and projects — including $10 million approved by council on Aug. 1 for 11 specific projects totaling 220 units of housing — that city administration has not acted on.

Hall also proposes greater transparency from the Mayor’s office in the form of weekly press conferences, “to cover not only the housing crisis, but all matters related to the city,” in which all division heads would be required to attend “and be responsible for answering detailed questions” from the press and public.

Hall writes that he believes such a forum would more effectively disseminate accurate information, leaders and staff would be publicly accountable for progress, and the citizens of Spokane might take more comfort that their government is working for them.

Of the other 22 pages, two are dedicated to a series of Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat (SWOT) analyses for each of the offices — a common way to, at a glance, document what is currently going well and going poorly (the S and the W, respectively) as well as future opportunities to potentially seize and roadblocks to try and avoid.  

The final 20 pages are supporting documents such as letters from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), validating Hall’s claims.

John Hall Resignation Letter by RANGE on Scribd

Housing funds unspent (or unasked for)

Hall spends the majority of his memo and supporting documents detailing several large pots of housing money that just aren’t being utilized, along with places where Spokane left millions of dollars on the table.

In addition to the $10 million earmarked by council for 220 housing units waiting to be executed, Hall outlines:

  • A minimum of $3 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money must be disbursed by May 1, 2023, after the city failed a timeliness test in May 2022. Failure to disburse those funds could result in the city losing between $1.1 million and $3 million, according to Hall.
  • A loan advance program that could allow Spokane to access $15 million in housing cash now and pay it off in chunks of CDBG allocation over the next 20 years.
  • A complicated series of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars coming from several different pots that Spokane didn’t properly understand or ask for. “The city could optimize $14.5 million in funding but appears to only be using $6 million and leaving $8.5 million on the table,” Hall writes.

In total, Hall seems to suggest that, aside from the “lack of urgency” in disbursing funds, even for programs that have been approved, the city just doesn’t have a staff with enough federal housing experience to even know all the funds that might be accessed and utilized. “The city must retain experienced housing practitioners and move with a sense of urgency to address the housing crisis,” he writes.

But how can a city retain experienced staff when it keeps hemorrhaging directors?

Transparency & Accountability

Council members Karen Stratton and Breean Beggs told RANGE neither of them had seen the document until today (Oct. 11), nearly two weeks after it was sent. Beggs told us he shared it with the rest of Council and legislative staff as well this afternoon, and none of them had seen it either.

When she finally did see it, Stratton says, “It was kind of painful to be honest. I felt if anyone was going to recreate or help this department succeed, it was John Hall.”

Stratton says in the short time she knew him, Hall was able to diagnose problems of both personnel and process in a way that impressed her.

That includes his criticisms of council overreach in this memo. She agrees with his analysis. “Absolutely I do,” Stratton says, “I do believe that there are times that council overreaches and we step out of our lane. I was a city employee, I know how that feels.”

Stratton says she believes the ongoing turmoil in housing services during what is unquestionably Spokane’s worst housing crisis in living memory is an issue of not just staffing, but staff support from leadership.

“That department used to be a robust, really well-run department until they started losing people,” she says, “We used to have the oversight. We used to have people who know what they’re doing.” As staffing began to slip, though, “we exhausted people. We still have good folks but they’re not getting the support they need to do their best work.”

The memo demonstrates how complicated this work is, both interpersonally — communicating with citizens and constituents, many of whom have lost or are in danger of losing it all — and bureaucratically — navigating intersecting revenue streams from state and federal government. In Stratton’s mind, Hall was that guy.

“John was really an expert,” she told RANGE, “That’s why it was so heartbreaking to see him leave. He could have been that leader who saw the strength of people and could start rebuilding this department.”

Stratton also believes previous administrations would have taken a memo like this and called all hands on deck to address the issues and agree on a path forward. “I’ve worked with two former mayors. The moment that memo came out, there would have been discussions,” Stratton says. “Talking about what we could have done better. Having the honest conversations to say you’re out of your lane, you can do better.”

She reiterates that, when she and her city council colleagues feel left in the dark, they start grasping for any switch that might be a light: “[Administration and council] just aren’t sitting down and opening up and having those conversations,” she says. “We do overreach and I cringe every time we do, but we don’t have the information we need. We’re asking questions and not making much progress.”

In his memo, Hall calls for a rigorous analysis of what is working and what isn’t, and an equally serious commitment to building back each limb of local government while figuring out how to keep them focused on their assigned roles and cooperating with each other. Stratton thinks that analysis is exactly right.

“If council and administration don’t work together, we all see what happens,” Stratton concluded, “We’re all responsible for a piece of this, and we need to take responsibility for our portions.”

A call and an email to Spokane Director of Communications Brian Coddington were not returned by the time of publication. If we hear back, we will update this story.

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