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HOMELESS IMPACT: Proposed facility might not hurt property values but expect more police visits

December 9, 2018 GMT

POCATELLO — Those who live in the neighborhood where a supportive housing complex for homeless people is being proposed have consistently voiced concerns that the facility will cause their property values to plummet and will significantly increase crime in their area.

The hundreds of people who have opposed a request from local pastor Jacqueline “Big Momma” Thomas to rezone a parcel of land on the 1200 block of Pershing Avenue from medium-density single-family residential to high-density residential are partly correct in their reasoning, according to a Journal analysis of a similar facility currently operating in Pocatello, the Aid for Friends homeless shelter which has been located on the 600 block of South Fourth Avenue since 1988.

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The Journal analysis included conversations with residents who live near Aid for Friends, an evaluation of assessed home values near that facility compared to areas several blocks away, and compiling statistics from the Pocatello Police Department about how many times it has responded to Aid for Friends this year.

The Journal analysis indicates that while property owners near the proposed Pershing Avenue site of the two-story, 24-unit facility known as “Big Momma’s House” could in fact see their property values increase, they can also expect Pocatello police to be in their neighborhood responding to the homeless facility about three times a week on average.

This information could impact the decision of the Pocatello City Council to approve or deny the rezoning request needed to make Big Momma’s House a reality. The City Council is expected to make its final decision at a public meeting set for 6 p.m. Dec. 20 at City Hall.

The average assessed home value for residences on the same block of South Fourth Avenue where Aid for Friends is located is approximately $109,000. Five blocks south of Aid for Friends on South Fourth Avenue the average assessed home value for residences is $96,000 and 10 blocks away on South Fourth Avenue from Aid for Friends the average assessed home value is $92,000.

In the world of real estate, the term “highest and best use” can be used to try and explain why surrounding property values can increase when a new business or other entity, such as a supportive housing complex for the homeless, enters a neighborhood, according to Gordon Wilks, the owner of Gate City Real Estate in Pocatello.

The current highest and best use in the neighborhood where Big Momma’s House is proposed to be located is residential — single-family houses for residents. But if a supportive housing complex for homeless people is constructed on Pershing Avenue, the highest and best use of that neighborhood would change.

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The zoning change that would allow Big Momma’s House to open its doors, if granted, would also mean that the houses in the neighborhood could now be used for medical offices, insurance businesses or even banks.

Opening the supportive housing complex for homeless people in that area would open up that neighborhood to many new possibilities that could in the end increase the values of the houses there, Wilks said.

“A business or large complex coming into a residential area could increase surrounding property values because there is a stronger monetary use for those properties,” Wilks said.

But he added that might be cold comfort to many Pershing Avenue residents.

“What everybody is overlooking here is the damage that it could cause to the people who don’t care about monetary value — the people who don’t want to sell their homes and care more about their lifestyle,” Wilks said. “They don’t want to sell their house and move. Their highest and best use is watching grandkids jump up and down on a trampoline in the backyard.”

It’s important to note that the theory of highest and best use doesn’t always result in higher property values for surrounding residences, and in some situations, new enterprises joining neighborhoods have adversely affected assessed home values, Wilks said.

In addition to analyzing property values, the Journal requested statistics from the Pocatello Police Department regarding how many times its officers have been dispatched to Aid for Friends this year. Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 27, officers with the Pocatello Police Department have been deployed to Aid for Friends 139 times, or about three times a week.

Pocatello police were dispatched to Aid for Friends to assist ambulance personnel responding to medical emergencies there 29 times from Jan. 1 to Nov. 27. Pocatello police have responded to Aid for Friends 57 times during that span for crime-related incidents including disturbances, assaults, thefts, vandalism, trespassing and one sexual assault. Pocatello police responded to Aid for Friends 19 times to check on the well-being of someone staying there and the remaining police responses were for incidents such as drug offenses or to investigate reports of suspicious people.

Most of the police responses at Aid for Friends are for incidents involving the people using the facility and not other residents who live in the neighborhood, according to BJ Stensland, the executive director of Aid for Friends.

This is further evidenced by conversations with people who live near Aid for Friends. Of the half-dozen people the Journal interviewed, not one person said they could recall any of the homeless people staying at Aid for Friends being arrested for committing a crime against one of the facility’s neighbors.

Still, some nearby residents suspect those staying at Aid for Friends are responsible for crime in the neighborhood.

“I have been broken into three times in the 20 years I’ve lived here but there is no way of knowing who did it,” said Steven Miller, a resident of East Carter Street who lives a few houses away from Aid for Friends.

Miller has installed a complex video security system at his house to protect his home from future break-ins.

The Journal also observed that the house directly next door to Aid for Friends has metal bars covering every one of its window. The Journal could not reach the owner of the house for comment.

Part of the reason police respond so frequently to Aid for Friends, according to Stensland, is because of how the people who stay at the facility are physically situated based on the living quarters there.

While Big Momma’s House would have individual apartments for the homeless staying there, Aid for Friends is one large single-family home that has been converted into a homeless shelter.

Stensland said Aid for Friends has a total of 34 beds spread across two floors and can house a maximum of 45 people.

The basement can house up to 20 men while the main level family floor can support a total of 25 women and children.

Stensland said the communal type living quarters at Aid for Friends can result in the police being called.

“The times police come it’s usually because somebody is not responding well or somebody gets agitated with staff and they don’t calm down,” Stensland said. “We do have altercations between clients, but that happens when you have a lot of people living together and they are already living in crisis.”

Stensland continued, “It’s very seldom that police are called because of conflicts with others outside the shelter, unless it’s with someone who has a direct prior connection to a client. It’s not a neighbor making the calls. Very often it’s our response to an accelerated situation between clients. We also have people with mental health issues that haven’t been taking their medications and we don’t know what is going on with them.”

Ed Snell, the director of the board for Big Momma’s House, said the absence of shared quarters at the supportive housing complex for homeless people proposed for Pershing Avenue will result in far less of a police presence than what Aid for Friends experiences.

“Each person who stays at Big Momma’s House will have their own space, their own living quarters, kitchens and washer and dryer facilities,” Snell said. “And if you drive by Aid for Friends or the Salvation Army you will see there are people just loitering. Big Momma’s House will be nothing like that. We don’t have a schedule of come in at a certain time for certain programs. This will be like a neighborhood. It’s not like you wait around to use the facility.”

Stensland said Aid for Friends is open 24-hours a day, 365 days a year and the facility does not close its doors at any time, so the people seen outside of Aid for Friends on any given day are not waiting to get in but are simply congregating at the place they’re temporarily calling home.

Another significant difference between Aid for Friends and the proposed Big Momma’s House is the length of stay. At Aid for Friends, the maximum length of stay is 90 days as opposed to a minimum stay of 120 to 180 days at Big Momma’s House. Snell says people who are accepted to Big Momma’s House can stay a maximum of two years or longer.

Like at Aid for Friends, Snell said all people who apply to stay at Big Momma’s House must pass a breathalyzer test to make sure they haven’t been using alcohol and they cannot have any outstanding warrants or be a registered sex offender. More stringent than Aid for Friends, Snell said applicants wanting to stay at Big Momma’s House will have to pass a urine analysis to ensure they are not on drugs and they will have to undergo a criminal background check to ensure they haven’t committed any violent or sexually related crimes.

“We will be very, very diligent to ensure that we won’t bring in low-lifes that people imagine we would,” Snell said. “We envision a ton of these referrals actually coming from pastors, clergy and bishops that, in many cases, know the people they are referring. Aid for Friends can refer people and most of these referrals will be known to these folks and will have gone through a vetting process before they even reach us.”

Though the financial accounting business Michelle Gunter owns on the same block as Aid for Friends has been broken into once in the 15 years she has been in that location, she said she has no way of knowing if it’s related to her proximity to the homeless shelter which was located in the neighborhood before she arrived. However, Gunter said she understands why so many people in the Pershing Avenue area are opposed to Big Momma’s House.

“I wouldn’t even know there was a homeless shelter in the neighborhood other than you can see them all waiting outside if you look out the window,” Gunter said. “I do support Big Momma’s House just not in that location, because if I had my business here before Aid for Friends was here I’d be totally against it.”

Mike Lundquist, an Idaho State University student who lives on the same block as Aid for Friends, says he’s never had a problem with the homeless shelter.

“I haven’t had really any problems at all,” Lundquist said about his experience living next to Aid for Friends. “Sometimes you will hear altercations and stuff but nobody has robbed me or vandalized my property.”

Lundquist continued, “I have actually met quite a few people who are staying there that I have come to find are really good people. When I first moved in a few months ago at the beginning of this school semester I didn’t realize the homeless shelter was right there and I was a little worried about it because you get ideas of what that might be like, and I was wrong. Everything I thought were just assumptions that I had that turned out to be false.”