D.C. Council members voiced sharp concerns about Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s proposal to create shelters for homeless families at their first hearing on the plan Thursday.
Council members spoke in unison about the need to close the city’s megashelter inside the former D.C. General Hospital. Bowser wants to replace that troubled facility with seven smaller shelters scattered across the District.
But several lawmakers said they were uneasy about the “eye-popping” costs connected to the plan, in which the city would pay above-market rents to landowners and developers for leases that in most cases would expire after 20 years. And some questioned the process used by the administration to select potential sites.
In one example, Bowser proposes spending $56 million to lease 38 units that would be built on Wisconsin Avenue NW, near Observatory Circle, in Ward 3. That amounts to an estimated $6,187.26 in monthly rent per unit over 20 years. The average rent for high-end apartments in that neighborhood is $2,973.
“Often times, the District does not negotiate in its best interest,” said D.C. Council President Phil Mendelson (D), who has agreed to bring the plan up for a vote as early as mid-April. “The District brings its B team, while the developer brings its A team. We’re [being asked to pay] a lot of money for sites that we will not own and will go away in 20 years.”
About 90 people signed up to speak at the hearing, which began in the morning and stretched until early evening.
Advocates for the homeless and representatives of nonprofit organizations and faith groups urged the council to approve the plans, saying they want shelters that are safer and more dignified than D.C. General.
Bowser’s plan calls for the city to spend up to $300 million to lease land and buildings over the next three decades. That means the city would pay an average of $4,500 per apartment per month for the next two decades. And that is just real estate: It does not include support services for the homeless that the city will provide at each site.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said the leasing proposal makes little sense. “Normally, when you build something, you own it,” he said. “You don’t pay rent for it later. It would be like me building a house and then paying rent for living there.”
At the proposed site in Ward 1, the city would pay almost $500,000 to develop each unit and then pay a monthly base rent of about $2,200, Grosso said.
“I’m not arguing about the purpose. I’m not arguing about the location,” Grosso said. “This just doesn’t make sense. . . . This is the people’s money, everyone’s money. We don’t have the choice to just throw it away.”
Bowser (D) made a rare appearance at the hearing to listen to members’ opening remarks, but she showed little reaction and left without speaking. Outside the hearing room, she defended the plan’s financing.
“The city leases space for all manner of buildings, including our offices,” Bowser said. “It’s a very common way for us to handle the public needs of a growing city. It’s exorbitantly expensive to poorly house 250 families at D.C. General with poor results.”
The mayor’s administration has revealed little about how the shelter sites were chosen. Officials said they first looked at city-owned properties but found acceptable sites only in Wards 7 and 8.
An examination by The Washington Post revealed that most of the private properties are owned or at least partly controlled by major donors to the mayor.
Bowser told reporters that she had “nothing to say” about the politically connected beneficiaries of her plan.
Brenda Donald, deputy mayor for health and human services, said that the deals were the best the administration could negotiate and that there was no favoritism in site selections.
“I can say unequivocally the decisions made on the sites had nothing to do with the developers,” Donald told The Post. “We didn’t even know who the developers were.”
The mayor’s spokesman, Michael Czin, told The Post that acquiring facilities in a robust real estate market comes at a price. “Ending homelessness isn’t the cheapest thing to do,” he said. “We have a system that’s very broken and that’s very expensive.”
The mayor’s aides also said that the rental prices of the proposed shelters are significant because they include the costs of such things as janitorial services, renovation work and commercial kitchen use.
Supporters of the plan said they feared that the effort to create new shelters could lose steam if the issue becomes bogged down in questions over costs.
Jennifer Speight, who lived in the family shelter at D.C. General for 11 months until she moved into permanent housing three weeks ago, spoke of moldy food, unresponsive management, and the sales and use of drugs outside the building. “No family, homeless or not, should have to call this home,” she said. “If everyone nitpicks this proposal, I am concerned the plan will fall apart and D.C. General will still be standing.”
Charles Parker, a pastor who is part of a religious coalition backing the plan, said that preventing government waste is important but that “costs and amendments are often used to delay action.”
Opponents stressed that they weren’t trying to keep shelters out of their neighborhoods.
“We are neither heartless nor ignorant,” said Andy Litsky, a waterfront Advisory Neighborhood Commission leader who wore a “YIMBY” button, referencing a “Yes in my back yard” slogan.
Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), the only council member who didn’t support the plan at its outset, said the costs and selection process should be scrutinized.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) cautioned his colleagues about the city’s long history of failing to improve the fate of the homeless.
“What I don’t want to end up with is doing nothing,” Evans said. “And that’s a real possibility.”
Aaron Davis contributed to this report.