Advocates for the homeless seeking to delay demolition of an aging family shelter on the former site of D.C. General Hospital suffered a setback Tuesday, as the D.C. Council approved a significantly weakened version of a bill addressing their concerns.
The bill, introduced by Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), requires that the mayor report weekly on the results of lead and asbestos testing at the megashelter and that all remaining residents are relocated to “safe, appropriate housing.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) plans to close the shelter by October and raze it, along with several vacant buildings that make up the campus of D.C. General. Demolition has already begun on one of those buildings adjacent to the shelter, raising concern among advocates and residents that children are being exposed to lead and asbestos.
The original legislation filed by White called for a halt to all demolition and barred District officials from relocating any families in the shelters to the budget hotel rooms frequently used for homeless families.
The council approved the weaker legislation unanimously.
“It’s a completely different bill,” said Amber Harding, staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which supported the earlier draft of the legislation. “It went from protecting the health and safety of poor families by stopping the demolition to telling the administration they can do what they’re already going to do.”
White said in an interview that his bill had to be amended because the original version would have required a fiscal impact statement, for which there was no time.
“Our hands were tied,” he said.
However, he said the bill would still serve to protect the families, in part by ensuring that the council receives regular updates on the shelter’s shutdown. “The purpose of the bill is to make sure that families are safe and have somewhere to go,” he said.
When she campaigned for mayor in 2014, Bowser promised to close D.C. General, whose decrepit conditions came under scrutiny after the 2014 disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who was staying at the shelter with her family.
Bowser’s plan to replace the shelter with six smaller facilities spread throughout the city has been the most ambitious initiative of her term.
But her signature project has run into trouble. The Washington City Paper reported that construction is behind on three replacement shelters that were supposed to open this year and that a subcontractor handling much of the construction lacked qualifications for the job.
The city and contractor pushed back the deadline for “substantial completion” of new shelters in Wards 4 and 7 from Aug. 31 to Oct. 1; there is no new completion date set for the third shelter, in Ward 8. City officials have said they will expand their use of motel rooms to house families between the time D.C. General is shuttered and the replacement shelters are opened.
Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said at the council’s breakfast meeting Tuesday that he had been asking since April for a report on the environmental impact of the demolition around the shelter but had received one only on Friday.
“It’s . . . ridiculous that it would take that long to get an environmental assessment,” he said. “That’s suspicious to me.”
The council’s Tuesday meeting was its last before a two-month summer recess. In addition to the vote on the shelter bill, the council voted to amend a recently enacted law regulating evictions, shortening a 30-day period evicted tenants had to collect their belongs to seven days.
Another closely watched piece of legislation that would limit the playing of amplified music was withdrawn at the last minute.
The bill, which would make it illegal to create electronically amplified noise in public that can be heard from 100 feet away, has become another culture clash in a city that is fast gentrifying.
Musicians and street performers held a musical protest at Seventh and H streets NW on Monday evening, arguing that a lively downtown is a draw for residents and visitors alike.
“How are you going to take the soul out of the city?” said Dior Ashley Brown, a hip-hop artist and a founder of the D.C. Music Summit.
Residents move downtown because urban living is hip, but then they arrive and decide they want suburban comforts, said Katea Stitt, interim program director at WPFW.
“The very things that attract people are the things they’re trying to kill,” she said.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the council has fielded a large number of complaints about outdoor noise from residents, business owners and even George Washington University Hospital.
Mendelson ultimately withdrew an emergency measure that would have enacted the legislation for 90 days, saying it would be taken up again when the council returns in September.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) co-introduced legislation requiring environmental reports on the demolition of the .C. General homeless shelter. Nadeau voted in favor of the bill but was not a co-sponsor.