D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is seeking to lease apartment buildings for homeless families, a consequential shift in her administration’s efforts to combat a housing shortage that could prove controversial among District residents and elected officials.
The city has issued a solicitation for buildings with up to 50 apartments that it would lease for the next two to three years. D.C. Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger cast the move as an attempt to reduce the city’s use of hotel and motel rooms, where more than 500 homeless families are being housed — at a cost of roughly $80,000 per night — because of crowded conditions at the District’s primary homeless shelter.
“We know that we have a reliance on motels right now that is very expensive,” Zeilinger said. “To the degree we can replace that with apartments, we would like to.”
Zeilinger said the city does not yet have a goal for how many homeless families it would house in leased buildings or cost estimates. She said she anticipates that families would typically stay in the buildings for about 120 days, the shelter system’s current average.
Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said the attempt to shift families from hotel and motel rooms — which are often small and lack a kitchen — into apartments “looks like a step in the right direction.”
But some council members say they still have unanswered questions about the plan.
Depending on the location of the apartment buildings, Bowser (D) could also face pitched political battles of the kind that have dogged her effort to replace the main family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital site with smaller shelters throughout the city.
The city is looking for complexes within one to two blocks of Metro rail stations, amid some of the District’s most desirable real estate.
Bowser’s initiative is the latest step in her efforts to address the District’s high rate of family homelessness, an issue at the center of her 2014 mayoral campaign and on which she has spent considerable political capital since taking office, with mixed results. Between 2007 and 2016, the District’s population of homeless families grew by 191 percent.
The mayor has earned praise from homeless advocates for expanding family shelter access year-round. Under the District’s previous policy, families were admitted only on nights cold enough to trigger a hypothermia alert.
But her plan for leasing private property throughout the city for smaller family homeless shelters to replace D.C. General was dramatically altered by the council after The Washington Post reported that the city would have paid above market rate for those leases and that some of the contracts would enrich the mayor’s political donors.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the city should be cautious in its latest homelessness initiative — for instance, by making sure it does not overpay for the leases.
“There’s a lot of risk here,” he said. Although the council only has a formal say on contracts of more than $1 million annually, he said, he expects the council’s Committee on Human Services to have an oversight role for the plan.
“I think, as a practical matter, we’ll be involved,” he said.
D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Bowser’s predecessor as mayor and a former director of the Department of Human Services, said council members should have been consulted about the plan while it was being developed.
Gray, chairman of the council’s Health Committee and a likely rival for the mayor’s job in 2018, said he was surprised that the plan did not come up in testimony before his committee last week by HyeSook Chung, the deputy mayor for health and human services.
Chung testified that the city was on track to reduce its annual spending on hotels and motels from $24 million this fiscal year to $16 million next year, and to stop using the plan altogether in the next two to three years. She did not mention any new plans to house homeless families in apartment buildings.
“Had the deputy mayor raised it at our hearing, I would have had a number of questions about it,” Gray said. “If it’s going to improve the conditions of these families, especially the children, then it’s a good idea. But it’s hard to evaluate an idea I know nothing about at this point.”
Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor, wrote in an email that Bowser “believes the council is an important partner in this effort and there will be many opportunities for input and oversight, same as there has always been.”