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Community Opposition Threatens To Derail DC Mayor’s Lucrative Homeless Shelter Plan

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Dozens of organizations dedicated to helping the homeless across D.C. have united in opposition to the mayor’s expensive homeless shelter plan, in a move that threatens to derail the rushed effort as the D.C. council pushes back their voting timetable.

Close to 60 social justice organizations from all parts of D.C. wrote a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser requesting a litany of changes to her highly controversial plan to house the homeless in new facilities in each ward of the city. Conservative estimates of the proposal say it will cost roughly $660 million over 30 years, after which the District government will cede control of the properties to developers.

“We support responsible management of District funds generally, not just with respect to the redevelopment of family shelters,” said the letter from the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition, a 57 member group dedicated to ending homelessness in the District. “The costs of this plan are very high. Some of the costs could be reduced by using D.C. -owned buildings or land.”

Originally scheduled to vote on the proposal in mid-April, D.C. Council President Phil Mendelson delayed action as more information concerning the immense costs of the program became known. The Council is expected to take up the issue again in May, but has until the end of July to make a final ruling on the plan.

Bowser maintains her plan is needed to give the homeless in the city the dignity they deserve. The groups commend Bowser’s efforts to close D.C. General Hospital by 2018 — a derelict building currently serving as the District’s only public shelter. But they asked for major reforms to her proposal in order to reduce costs and better protect homeless families. (RELATED: DC Mayor Blasts ‘Vicious’ Critics Of Homeless Shelter Plan)

A main point of confusion among opponents of the current plan is why the mayor did not seek to build the new sites on public land controlled by the D.C. government. The mayor’s office argues the city does not have the funds to pay for construction on public sites, so costs shouldered by the developers under the proposed leases. The coalition also demands the mayor change the Ward 5 site due to health concerns and provide private bathrooms for every homeless family in the new facilities.

The Ward 5 site is currently located in an industrial zone with a waste treatment center with no accessible grocery stores or public transportation. The coalition also points out the shelter would be near a strip club, a marijuana growing facility with armed guards and night clubs. D.C.’s first gun range may be built next to the Ward 5 site as well.

“It is highly likely that environmental pollutants in that area will cause or exacerbate significant health conditions in both residents and staff if a shelter is built there,” the letter says. “The Ward 5 site is not a safe, healthy or dignified place for anyone to live, much less children and parents undergoing a severe housing crisis.”

Bowser is sticking to her guns, refusing to entertain any alterations to her initiative, arguing it will stall and ultimately end any effort to close D.C. General. The mayor says site location must stay the same and is trying to push the package through as emergency legislation, exempting it from various zoning laws the plan violates. (RELATED: DC Residents In Revolt Over Mayor’s Plan To Put Homeless In $100,000 Units Next Door)

Critics note the non-negotiable sites the Bowser Administration chose benefit a number of top donors to Bowser’s mayoral campaign. The proposal includes lucrative leases for the five corporations involved in each site’s development. Three of the corporations benefiting from the plan are tied to Douglas Jemal, Bryan Irving and Suman Sorg, top donors to Bowser.

Under the proposal the District government will cede ownership of the sites to the developers, who can sell the properties after the leases expire. The total value of the sites is currently estimated at $14.5 million, however the proposal could spike their value by as much as 10 times to roughly $147 million. (RELATED: DC Mayor’s Donors Stand To Profit From Hotly Contested Shelter Plan)

The mayor’s office responded to the broad coalition, including homeless advocacy groups, by saying they appreciate the sentiment but cannot abide changing the current proposal. Officials with the mayor’s office remain convinced it will be impossible to close D.C. General by 2018 if the package doesn’t pass intact.

“While we appreciate the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition’s support for closing D.C. General, the proposals in their petition would needlessly delay efforts to close the facility and drive up costs,” Michael Czin, communications director for Bowser told WAMU. “The simple fact is if we fail to act now, we will fail to close D.C. General. The Council has had the bill for 76 days. Our homeless residents deserve better — it’s time to hold a vote.”

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