Testimony at the Budget Oversight Roundtable on the Department of General Services

Chairman White and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Coventry, and I am a senior policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). DCFPI is a non-profit organization that shapes racially-just tax, budget, and policy decisions by centering Black and brown communities in our research and analysis, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts to advance an antiracist, equitable future.

DCFPI is here today to ask the Department of General Services (DGS) and the Council to ensure that two standalone public restrooms are constructed in fiscal year (FY) 2023 by using the project’s current capital budget balance to supplement the funds allocated in the FY 2023 budget, if needed. Public restrooms promote racial and economic equity as a local study found that Black non-customers who appeared possibly homeless were more likely to be denied access to a business’s restrooms than white customers who appeared housed.[1] Most residents experiencing homelessness do not have money to make purchases at these establishments to be able to gain access to the restroom.

DGS Should Build Two Public Restrooms

Passed unanimously by the Council in late 2018, the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act calls for the creation of two pilot standalone restrooms in the District in locations recommended by a working group appointed for this purpose. The working group recently submitted a draft report including these proposed locations to the Mayor. The legislation requires the Mayor to release this report to the public within 30 days and that the Mayor install two public restrooms within 180 days.

It is likely that the $270,000 currently allocated for each year of the capital plan is insufficient to construct two restrooms this year due to increases in costs driven by inflation and supply chain issues. Fortunately, there is a $540,000 capital balance. We ask the agency and the Council to use the $540,000 to supplement the annual capital plan allocation to ensure that two restrooms are built within 180 days. Absent a reallocation of funding, DGS would only be able to build one restroom. Building two restrooms, rather than just one, is important for creating more restroom access for residents who are unhoused and/or restroom-challenged and having at least two sites on which to conduct the evaluation of the pilot required by the legislation.

Public Restrooms are Fundamental to Human Dignity and Health

Public restrooms are especially critical for people who are restroom-challenged.[2] When seniors, pregnant women, young children, and people on certain medications have to go, they have to go urgently. Easily accessible, clean, safe restrooms make good business sense and help foster tourism.[3] Knowing that there are public restrooms readily accessible, people are more apt to visit parks, ride their bikes, jog, and walk. As a result, more and more cities are investing in public restrooms.[4]

Residents experiencing homelessness in particular stand to benefit from restroom expansions. The pandemic has made restroom access worse as many downtown businesses that have restrooms that non-customers may be able to use have closed. And even prior to the pandemic, there was evidence that fewer businesses were allowing non-customers to use their restrooms. The People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) visited 85 businesses in five areas of DC that have high levels of pedestrian traffic and people experiencing homelessness to see if they would allow the general public to access their restrooms. In 2015, they found that 43, just over half of the businesses, allowed anyone to use their restroom.[5] In 2016, they visited these businesses again and found that 28 allowed access to individuals who weren’t customers. [6] In 2017, they visited these businesses again and found that only 11 still allowed this access.[7] They also found, in their 2016 follow up, that businesses discriminated against a PFFC member experiencing homelessness who visited the restrooms. They allowed a white woman who appeared housed to use the restroom but not a Black man who appeared possibly homeless. Most residents experiencing homelessness do not have money to make purchases at these establishments to be able to gain access to the restroom.

The lack of access to bathrooms is not merely an inconvenience—it can have devastating health and public health consequences. People are encouraged to wash their hands frequently to stop the spread of COVID. Catherine Crossland of Unity Healthcare has testified about her patients skipping lifesaving blood pressure, heart and HIV/AIDS medications because they can lead to an urgent need for the restroom.[8] Southern California experienced a large Hepatitis A outbreak from 2017 to 2019 because of the lack of toilets and handwashing facilities for residents experiencing homelessness.[9] At least 21 people died as a result.[10]

By increasing access to public restrooms, the District can be a friendlier place for residents with illnesses and disabilities, tourists, children and their caretakers, and residents experiencing homelessness. I urge the agency and the Council to ensure that at least two restrooms are built in FY 2023.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I am happy to answer any questions.

[1] People for Fairness Coalition, “Revisiting, One Year Later, Private Facilities in DC That Let Us Use Their Restrooms,’ January 2017.

[2] People for Fairness Coalition, “The Restroom Challenged, from the American Restroom Associate website,” Accessed March 29, 2022.

[3] Mary Beth Quirk, “The Future of Tourism is Public Toilets,” Consumerist, the blog of Consumer Reports, September 5, 2017.

[4] Sarah Breitenbach, “Cities Look to Public Restrooms to Clean Up Downtowns, Attract Tourists,” Huffington Post, September 5, 2017.

[5] People for Fairness Coalition, “Does Downtown Washington DC Have Restrooms That Are Clean, Safe, and Available to Everyone 24/7,” Accessed March 29, 2022.

[6] People for Fairness Coalition, “Revisiting, One Year Later, Private Facilities in DC That Let Us Use Their Restrooms,’ January 2017.

[7] People for Fairness Coalition, “Results of 2017 Follow Up of Inventory Carried out in 2015.

[8] Catherine Crosland, “Testimony Regarding B22-223 ‘Public Restroom Installation and Promotion Act of 2017,’” Unity Health Care, January 10, 2018.

[9] Anna Gorman, “‘Medieval’ Diseases Flare as Unsanitary Living Conditions Proliferate” California Healthline, March 12, 2019.

[10] Ibid.