Legal advocates for the nation’s homeless population are hoping that a recent federal judge’s decision in a 25-year-old lawsuit against the federal government could lead to thousands more unused federal buildings being converted into shelters, health clinics and other services for the homeless.

A March 21 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that many government agencies have been inaccurately reporting their number of unused federal properties — thus violating a federal law that requires agencies to list unused buildings that can potentially be used for homeless services. The ruling orders the General Services Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take additional steps to ensure agencies are following the law, including creating new training programs.

“The court finds troubling indications of widespread noncompliance” with the law, Judge Royce Lamberth wrote in the opinion. “Landholding agencies appear to be hiding potentially eligible properties from the Title V process.”

The law in question is Title V of the McKinney-Vento Act, which requires federal agencies to list unused, surplus or underutilized properties in the Federal Register, and reach out to homeless services providers — nonprofits and state and local governments — that can apply to lease the properties at no charge. Under the law, providers are to get a 60-day period where they get right of first refusal to those properties. This is important because one of the greatest costs to running homeless services is real estate, and the law is meant to allow nonprofits to gain access to buildings they may not be able to afford on the open market.

“We’re very hopeful this order will result in potentially thousands of properties that have never been made available to homeless services providers to be screened for suitability and be made available,” said Tristia Bauman, an attorney at the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, a D.C. legal nonprofit that filed the lawsuit. “We expect we’re going to be able to more closely monitor whether the government is complying, and have access to buildings that were unbeknownst to us before.”

Original suit filed in 1988

Nearly 500 properties in 30 states and D.C. have been obtained through Title V, and now house homeless services, including the largest shelter in the District, the Community for Creative
Non-Violence. Others include Foodlink, a California group that provides food and job training on a former military base, and an emergency shelter in Joplin, Mo., that housed people displaced by a tornado in 2011.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

Lamberth’s ruling is the latest twist in a long-standing dispute between the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty and the federal agencies tasked with carrying out Title V.

The original lawsuit was filed in 1988 by the NLCHP and several other nonprofits serving the homeless, accusing federal agencies of violating Title V. The agencies named in the suit were the Department of Veterans Affairs, Defense Department, Department of Housing and Urban Development, the GSA and D.C.’s Department of Health and Human Services. In 1993, a judge issued a permanent injunction ordering the government to implement the law. The order preserved the right for the nonprofits to bring the issue before a court again for enforcement if agencies were not complying with the law. In 2011, government lawyers tried to do away with that order, saying that agencies had been consistently complying with the law for 18 years and the injunction was no longer necessary. Lamberth denied that request in his decision last month.

In the opinion, Lamberth acknowledged a major discrepancy between the number of unused federal properties reported through the Title V process and the number of properties that the Office of Management and Budget counts as unused or surplus. Between 2005 and 2011, there were fewer than 28,000 unused properties reported in the Federal Register through the Title V process. But a 2010 memorandum by the OMB found that there were 69,000 excess, unused and underutilized federal properties.