A supermajority of the D.C. Council on Monday said it will overhaul Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s plan to lease private property for homeless shelters, calling it a waste of tax dollars that would not permanently solve a growing epidemic of homeless families.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) released legislation backed by nine of the council’s 13 members that would jettison about half of the sites the mayor wants to lease from private landowners.
Instead, the city would build five shelters on public land and empower Bowser (D) to purchase property or use eminent domain to take control of two others. The city would save about $165 million compared with the mayor’s plan, Mendelson said.
Although the council’s plan aims to accomplish the same goal of closing the District’s troubled megashelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, it marks a major reversal and repudiation of Bowser’s approach.
John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff, said there are a number of concerns with the council proposal. The chief one, he said is starting over with site design and zoning approvals that could “delay the closing of D.C. General by at least a year or more,” he said. “Further, [Mendelson’s] proposal takes capital dollars away from school modernization and critical infrastructure.”
Nearly every council member supported Bowser’s plan when she released it in February. But as details came to light, support eroded among council members and they faced pointed questions from constituents.
An examination of Bowser’s $660 million plan by The Washington Post found problems on many levels. The city would have paid in excess of market rate for several properties based on flawed assumptions about real estate and construction costs. Some of the contracts would have enriched political donors to the mayor. One proposed site would have homeless children living next to a party venue; at another, they would be living in an area with poor air quality and other environmental hazards.
Mendelson said the council’s plan would locate more families closer to Metro and other transit options, and streamline zoning approvals so the city’s dilapidated shelter at D.C. General might be able to close in two years. Most important, taxpayers would realize significant savings, he said.
The council could vote on the proposal as early as Tuesday and finalize it early next month.
But it comes with $100 million in upfront costs, to build some of the shelters on city land and acquire land for others. And that might require a shift of funds away from renovations at one school — at least for a year — to the homeless shelters.
The school affected would be Coolidge Senior High School in Bowser’s home ward, which she has repeatedly promised would receive a major facelift. Mendelson and the mayor’s office were in negotiations Monday about how to keep the project on track for a renovation to be completed by 2019.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chair of the Education Committee, recently said he had “serious” reservations about Bowser’s plan to spend almost $60 million on renovations this year because design work had not begun. According to a report by Grosso’s committee, it is “highly unlikely” that the city would be able to spend the money for the renovation in the coming year.
Mendelson pointed to that as evidence that funding for the project could be delayed for at least a year without harm. He wants to allocate $15 million to proceed with planning Coolidge but divert the rest to the shelter plan.
The city would own the facilities, rather than face the prospect of finding new ones for the homeless after leases expire in 20 years, Mendelson said.
“This is a better plan,” Mendelson said. “It uses taxpayer dollars responsibly while doing what the mayor wants, which is to create dignified shelters for families facing crises of homelessness.”
Mendelson released his draft legislation to colleagues on Monday afternoon.
But a small group of council members had been working on parts of the plan for weeks, with some shuttling proposals back and forth to Bowser’s office over the past seven days in negotiation, according to several people involved in the discussions.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said he had concluded two weeks ago that he could not support a plan to “shoehorn” a homeless shelter onto 700 Delaware Ave. SW, a parcel containing the Blind Whino, a popular arts and entertainment venue.
“It raised questions about what kind of a space we were really creating,” Allen said.
He and Mendelson settled on 200 K St. NW, a razed parking lot above a stretch of Interstate 395. The parcel is 10 times bigger than the mayor’s proposed site and within a half-mile of three Metro stations and a dozen bus lines, and is two blocks from a recreation center, a library and a Walmart.Two weeks ago, the city’s department of economic development invited bids from developers for that property.
“To be honest, I hope the mayor and her team will see this as an opportunity to work together and accomplish the same goal,” Allen said, adding that he gives credit to the mayor for pushing the issue to the top of the city’s agenda. “We wouldn’t be here had she not started this.”
The council’s plan would also scrap Bowser’s proposal to locate a 50-family shelter in Ward 5 along an industrial stretch of Bladensburg Road, near a massive Metro bus yard, a strip club and auto-body shops.
The site would instead be placed either at 1700 Rhode Island Ave. NE, a mile from a Metro station or at 326 R St. NE, a half-mile north of the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro stop.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), the only lawmaker who opposed Bowser’s plan because of the site she selected in his ward, said he prefers the Rhode Island site but supports either location in the council’s plan.
Closing D.C. General became a central pledge of Bowser’s mayoral campaign after the disappearance of an 8-year-old girl in the custody of a janitor at the city-owned facility. The janitor later committed suicide and Relisha Rudd remains missing.
The council plan would also relocate the proposed shelter along Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest. The shelter would move a mile north to the parking lot of a D.C. police station at 3320 Idaho Ave.
The council plan would authorize Bowser to purchase sites she had proposed to lease in Ward 1, near U Street, and in Ward 4, along Fifth Street.