Chairman Mendelson and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Ed Lazere, and I am the Executive Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI promotes budget and policy choices to expand economic opportunity for DC residents and reduce income inequality in the District of Columbia, through independent research and policy recommendations.
I am here today to express strong support for the plan to replace DC General, to urge the District to perform an environmental impact study at the Ward 5 site, and to address some of the concerns we have heard raised about the plan.
Replacing DC General is long overdue. The building is old and has constant problems with heating and cooling. It shelters too many families’up to 260 at a time’requiring greater security than a small shelter would, including metal detectors. It was never meant to be a shelter, so it lacks sufficient spaces for activities like studying or parenting classes.
The proposed shelters address these issues. They will be new or newly renovated and will house no more than 50 families. Each shelter will have a computer lab, study areas, and meeting space for classes and other activities. They will be far more humane places for parents to help their children manage the trauma of homelessness.
While DCFPI generally supports the sites selected, we share concerns raised by others about air quality at the Ward 5 site, given its proximity to a WMATA bus barn and other industrial uses. We ask the District to perform an environmental impact study site to confirm whether the site is environmentally healthy, and to identify any steps needed to protect the health of families at a shelter there.
The District’s Homeless Services System Needs Both Short-Term Shelter and Affordable Housing
We have heard some residents ask why the District is building shelters rather than long-term affordable housing. The District will always need some shelter to meet the emergency needs of families and ensure that families are not forced to stay in unsafe places like cars or abandoned buildings. Families experience homelessness as a crisis and often only learn with little or no advance notice that they have no place to stay that night. It would not be practical to move a family into a permanent subsidized apartment the day they become homeless. It would also be difficult to meet a family’s specific needs such as accessibility to school or work. Placing families in shelter that is intended to be temporary allows the District to provide some level of stability and time to assess what is needed to help a family get back on their feet.
That said, there is widespread agreement that preventing and reducing homelessness requires substantial expansion of affordable housing options. In short, we need both affordable housing and shelter.
Smaller Shelters Are Easier to Manage and Better for Families
DCFPI has heard a number of concerns about DC’s ability to effectively manage the new shelters and find qualified providers in light of the issues at DC General. It is important to note that the District already manages four smaller family shelters, each run by a different nonprofit provider. These shelters do not draw much attention precisely because they run much more smoothly than DC General. They have between 20 and 45 families at each site and are integrated into their neighborhoods. Many neighbors are surprised to learn that a building that looks like a regular apartment building is in fact a shelter.
How to Improve Transparency and Resident Engagement
DCFPI strongly supports transparency in government, and we sympathize with neighbors of the proposed sites who say that there has been little transparency in this process. At the same time, it is not clear that the District government could have been more transparent about proposed sites before they were announced. The District was involved in ongoing negotiations with multiple land owners over many potential parcels, many of which ended up not being suitable. Publicly sharing all of the sites the District was considering would have jeopardized the city’s ability to negotiate deals.
Now that the sites are announced, we believe the District should assemble community advisory groups to address legitimate concerns about issues such as security, impacts on neighborhood schools, and shelter design. The District should document decision-making and reasoning on these issues.
Concerns over Use of Leasing and High Costs of Proposed Shelters
We have heard concerns around using leased, rather than District-owned buildings. The District frequently uses leased properties for a variety of purposes, including agency headquarters, Department of Human Services Service Centers, and at least one shelter for individuals and one permanent supportive housing building. There are advantages to this practice, as the owner is responsible for maintenance and the District can spread the cost of construction over a number of years.
In addition, a number of observers have noted the seemingly high costs of the proposed shelters. While the figures cited are indeed high, DCFPI does not have real estate finance expertise to assess whether the District should have been able to negotiate better deals. Any judgment of costs should be based on assessments by people with that specific expertise who are able to consider the particular constraints of this plan. For example, the District needed to secure seven sites in a timely way, and it asked developers to build sites in many specific ways that in some cases differ from traditional permanent housing. The District also wanted the sites to be spread out across the District and needed sites to be of a certain size to achieve economies of scale.
It is worth noting that the shelter that will soon be opened in Ward 2, which also has been cited as having very high costs, was negotiated and signed by former Mayor Gary. This may be an indication that developing shelters in the District is expensive.
Well-Managed Small Shelters Should Not Negatively Affect Property Values
National research has found that construction of shelters and supportive housing does not have a negative effect on property values. In fact, newly built shelters may increase property values in struggling neighborhoods. Here in the District, N Street Village is surrounded by condominiums and row houses that cost more than $1 million.