PROSSER -- It's unlikely that residents of a proposed low-income housing complex in Prosser would add to overcrowding in the schools.
That's because many of those the project is intended for already live in town -- crammed into small apartments or living in spaces not meant for human habitation, said the project's nonprofit developer and city officials.
And whatever effects are felt can be softened with payments to the school district.
The 121-unit complex proposed for a site off North River Road has encountered some vocal opposition, first at a city council meeting Feb. 15 and at a Prosser School Board meeting two weeks later.
The city council meets at 6 p.m. today at the Princess Theatre to discuss -- and possibly vote on -- changing the city's comprehensive plan to allow the project.
Opponents have said hundreds of newcomers would overwhelm city services, including the schools.
But the impact will not nearly be as dramatic as that, judging from similar projects completed elsewhere in the Yakima Valley, said Bryan Ketcham, director of Catholic Charities Housing Services, the faith-based nonprofit behind the development.
The planned 121 units likely would house about 540 people, based on occupancy rates from other Catholic Charities properties. Assuming the age distribution would be the same as at three completed projects in Sunnyside, Mattawa and Royal City, about 200 would be school-age kids.
But only about 10 percent of the families would come from outside Prosser, Ketcham said. That estimate is based on the nonprofit's experience in other towns. It has built 13 complexes for farmworkers or seniors in Central Washington, according to a map of properties on its website.
"Most of the people in these developments already live in the communities," said Mary Anne Hoppe, portfolio manager at Coast Real Estate Services, which manages the properties.
She's been involved in 10 Catholic Charities projects where she saw renters' previous addresses on their applications.
And with the dire need for housing described by city officials, Prosser officials expect a similar experience.
A few years ago, former City Administrator Fred Stouder contacted Catholic Charities after city workers found "22 people living in a basement with a garden hose for their water supply," said current City Administrator Charlie Bush.
Further investigation found low-income workers living in crawl spaces, garages and sheds, he said.
That typically means there's a shortage of affordable housing. "It's a red flag," Bush said.
And there are less dramatic examples of housing shortages in Prosser, Ketcham said. After Stouder contacted the nonprofit, it asked parishioners of the local Catholic church about housing.
The survey found that two, sometimes three, families were sharing one apartment in Prosser to be able to afford it, Ketcham said.
Those families will be able to move into a place of their own if the complex is built, but would use no more services or classroom space than when they were doubled up.
The gradual schedule for the project also would reduce its impact on the city and school district. It'll be 18 months to two years at the earliest until construction would begin, said Steve Zetz, Prosser's city planner.
Catholic Charities would build 40 to 50 units then, Ketcham said, and the project would reach full size over 10 years, he said.
The nonprofit still could pay for any impacts the development causes.
Just before the start of this school year, Catholic Charities opened a similar farmworker complex in George. The 51-unit project added a lot of living space to the town of 500.
When plans first surfaced a few years ago, citizens in the tiny town were concerned, Ketcham said. But the charity worked with local officials, including the school district.
"We met several times to discuss the project," said Quincy Superintendent Burton Dickerson. "They really pitched in and were helpful."
In the end, Catholic Charities gave $40,000 to the district to offset costs of increased enrollment at the school of 120 students, Dickerson said. The nonprofit estimated 20 students might move to George.
With the school year well under way, fewer than the projected 20 students were added because of the development, Dickerson said.
Prosser school officials also met with Catholic Charities early on, said Superintendent Ray Tolcacher.
"We will have to educate any youngster who comes here," Tolcacher said. "If there were a large number of kids, we'd have a discussion with the developer."
That's true for any development in town, no matter the income of its residents, he said.
It's part of the building permit process, too, said city administrator Bush.
The project environmental review process requires that a development's impacts on city services and schools be examined and paid for by developers, if necessary.
The project also would have an effect on property taxes because it likely will be tax-exempt as a religious charity. But cities regularly charge payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT, to entities that don't have to pay property taxes, including government properties and churches.
"The PILT could be in a development agreement," said Zetz, the city planner. "It's up to the school district (officials) to tell us their concerns."
-- Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org