Tensions flared after the D.C. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to overhaul Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s plan to create a network of shelters for homeless families, with Chairman Phil Mendelson accusing the Bowser administration of “obfuscation and misinformation” and the mayor firing back with an expletive.
The council agreed with Bowser (D) that the government should close the troubled D.C. General Shelter by 2018 and replace it with smaller sites across the city. But it wants to build those shelters on public or purchased property, rejecting Bowser’s more expensive plan to lease private land.
Mendelson (D) said negotiations were hampered by the mayor’s inability to work with legislators. He said her office provided incomplete or faulty rationales when explaining why her preferred private sites were better than less costly public property.
“There has been a lot of misinformation and obstruction,” Mendelson said at the council meeting. “These problems all would have been avoided if there had been more collaboration.”
Mendelson said the council’s plan will still enable the city to shutter D.C. General by 2018. “This will not delay and, I believe, will speed up the acquisition, design and construction process,” Mendelson said.
But Bowser’s aides dispute that, and moments after the council vote on Tuesday, she unloaded at Mendelson in a hallway of the Wilson Building, calling him a “f------ liar”, an exchange that was first reported by WAMU and confirmed by several eyewitnesses.
“Quite candidly, there’s a bit of frustration today because yesterday we pointed out these concerns . . . and today they are sort of dismissed,” said John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff.
In a brief interview Tuesday, Bowser blasted the chairman for asserting that his plan would be easy to implement.
She said she was particularly troubled by the council’s intention to use eminent domain to seize properties from landowners, after her administration had negotiated with them to lease the sites.
She said her greatest concern was Mendelson’s promise that changing plans would not delay the closure of D.C. General.
“The council chairman said a lot today that I don’t agree with, and the biggest issue is that he has somehow divined that his changes will not delay the closure of D.C. General,” she said.
The mayor’s aides said that Mendelson had glossed over problems in his plan that will add to the timetable. In Ward 6, for example, the council’s plan calls for building a shelter above a parking garage — an engineering challenge that may create lengthy battles to get permission from federal officials and nearby property owners, they said. Residents of that ward have questioned Bowser’s original proposal for dormitory-style housing near an events space.
The legislation calls for building five shelters on public land and empowering the mayor to purchase or use eminent domain to buy the remaining two. (The eighth site in Ward 2 is already built.) Mendelson said the council’s approach would cost $165 million less than Bowser’s plan.
Council members LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who are facing tough reelection fights this June, feared their wards east of the Anacostia would house a disproportionate share of homeless families if other shelter plans are mired in legal or regulatory challenges.
“We need to do it in an equitable way, which is a way this government has not treated Ward 8 in the past,” said May, who unsuccessfully tried to introduce an amendment that she said would ensure her district wouldn’t end up with the biggest shelter.
Alexander, who is fending off a challenge by former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), said using eminent domain could mean new shelters might not open until well past the 2018 target date.
Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) objected to diverting some funds next year for the renovation of Calvin Coolidge High School in his district to fund the homeless shelter plan.
“For this council to say to Ward 4 students that we are going to have you bear the brunt for the whole city, I think, is unconscionable,” said Todd, who is challenged in his reelection bid.
The council will take a final vote on the revised homeless shelter legislation, probably in June, providing additional time for the mayor’s office and legislators to try to resolve differences.
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.