Economy

Mayor’s Ties To Developers Threaten To Derail Plan For Better Homeless Shelters In Nation’s Capital

CREDIT: AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has a plan that would deliver dramatic and much-needed improvements to homeless shelters in Washington, D.C. But it just got way more complicated.

Washington, D.C.’s primary homeless shelter is a dangerous, decrepit place and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) plan to replace it with several smaller, distributed housing and shelter facilities has almost unanimous support from the advocacy community.

But that popular plan may now be in jeopardy.

Most of the sites Bowser proposes building shelter spaces are currently owned by people and companies who donated to her campaign, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. These landowners would see a windfall from the plan as currently designed.

Bowser appeared but did not speak at a City Council hearing on the plan Thursday. Asked about the news her plan would enrich people who helped her win the District’s top government job, the mayor said she had “nothing to say.” Her administration rejects the implication that it steered funds to donors, but the fact that they will benefit from the plan regardless of Bowser’s intentions is damaging.

If the District were simply buying out the owners of the planned shelter sites, the news that campaign donors would be on the selling end of those transactions might matter less. Sites that suit the core needs of Bowser’s plan – spread around the city for convenience, within the city’s financial means to acquire, and capable of supporting the kind of structures the plan envisions – are scarce amid the District’s red-hot real estate market. Buying from mayoral donors might have been distasteful, but absent alternatives it would have been hard for a community that’s unanimous about closing D.C. General to find real fault.


But leasing from those donors -- even unknowingly, as the sites were selected by a team that did not have any information about who owned them -- is a tougher sell. The city will shoulder the cost of building the shelter spaces itself and spend as much as $300 million over the next 20 years on construction, renovation, janitorial and food service, and rent.

And when the leases expire after 20 years, sites that D.C. taxpayers paid to improve would revert into private hands. The equity built up by the city’s shelter work would accrue to the present owners, not to the city. One projection done for councilmembers indicates the sites would be worth 10 times their present value at the end of the lease plan, the Post noted.

Buying all these sites outright would have been very expensive on the front end, and the city’s budget for using debt to finance public projects is tight, Bowser spokesman Michael Czin told ThinkProgress. “Due to budgetary pressures, leasing is an option that still allows us to invest in other key priorities like school modernizations,” Czin said.

It’s possible that the city could have spread the purchases of new sites over a number of years. But the city did not explore that set of options, in part because that would have meant keeping D.C. General open in the meantime – an outcome no-one wants.

D.C. General was notorious among local homelessness advocates for years. But the kidnapping of a child named Relisha Rudd from the facility in 2014 put the building’s failings on blast throughout the region.

It was the desire to shutter that facility that drove the process, Czin said, noting that the team that reviewed proposals for shelter sites was not given information about who owned them.

“We had an open process for more than a year where developers and landowners could submit their sites,” he said. “We reviewed those sites, we posted those sites online, and have moved forward to the council with the sites that we feel best meet the needs of homeless residents and the district as a whole.” But no one in the mayor's office kept an eye out for potential conflicts of interest for fear of tainting the selection process -- exposing the entire plan to political sabotage over the relationship between beneficiary landlords and Bowser's much-criticized political operation.


Bowser's plan already faced opposition, mainly from people near the proposed sites who were concerned that the shelters would devalue their properties and raise crime rates.

The mayor previously pitched the shelters at contentious community meetings, where many residents raised sharp objections to living near facilities for the homeless. Some such objections are factually unfounded. And others at the meetings expressed support for the project, as ThinkProgress’ Alex Zielinski reported at the time.

“I want to remind people that there are some things more valuable than property values,” one attendee told his neighborhood meeting. “Please remember we are talking about people, not things.”