DC Council Says Costs of Helping Homeless People Too High As It Hands Over $82 Million to a Developer

On November 7, 2017, the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017 made it through the first vote (11-2). Before it can become law, the DC Council must vote on it again, which will likely take place on December 5. Here’s a summary of what happened at the first vote:

Over the last few months, the DC Council has received hundreds of emails and phone calls from constituents telling them to “vote no” on the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act, as the DC Council Committee on Human Services went through the mark-up process, and ultimately passed the bill on to the Committee of the Whole. They received a letter  from 37 (and counting) organizations and community leaders asking them to “vote no.” They saw hundreds if not thousands of tweets (#VoteNoHSRABill) imploring them to do the right thing and vote against this bill. Several Councilmembers have said that they have zero to very few constituents asking them to vote yes—nearly everyone but the Mayor telling them it will harm the people they were elected to serve.

The bill, according to the Chief Financial Officer, will not save DC any money. It may in fact cost DC money. The bill does nothing to address root causes of homelessness, nothing to expand affordable housing, nothing to improve jobs or education. Contrary to the statement made by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in support of the bill, that the purpose of the bill is to safeguard the right to shelter in freezing weather , the bill does the very opposite. It erodes the safety net, rolls back the rights of the poorest residents of DC, and puts people’s lives at risk.

So what did the Council do at Tuesday’s legislative session? So what did the Council do at Tuesday’s legislative session? First, it unanimously designated Franklin School, which for years was a homeless shelter, as “surplus property” so it could be sold to a developer: i.e. the Council found this former shelter “no longer required for public purposes.” Then, it gave $82.4 million to a developer at Union Market. (Union Market is a sparkling effigy to gentrification—it replaced the historic Florida Avenue farmer’s market and swap meet with high-priced specialty shops.) The Council overrode an attempt by Councilmembers Silverman and Grosso to divert $36 million of that developer giveaway to affordable housing and public transportation at the site. The Chair of the Council, Phil Mendelson, opposing the Silverman/Grosso amendment, referred to the need for affordable housing as “rhetoric.”

The Council then immediately turned to discussion of the homeless services bill. With hardly a breath taken to contemplate their hypocrisy, they spoke of the “overtaxed” shelter system, “constrained resources,” and a pressing need to do something to “control” it. Mere minutes after refusing to devote part of a developer subsidy to affordable housing, 11 Councilmembers voted for a bill purposed to reduce access to shelter and housing for those most harmed by our District’s failure to preserve and produce affordable housing - people experiencing homelessness in the nation’s capital. Only Councilmembers Trayon White and David Grosso voted against the bill. (Councilmembers Trayon White and David Grosso were also the most notable contributors to discussion on amendments aimed at reducing the harm in the bill.)

Here’s a more detailed break-out of what happened during the discussion:

Technical amendments. Councilmember Nadeau introduced a few technical amendments to clean up the bill. She fixed the definition of “at risk of homelessness” which had virtually abolished the Emergency Rental Assistance Program by requiring a document that doesn’t exist in DC. She fixed some due process inconsistencies in the bill. Finally, she closed a loophole in the definition of homelessness that advocates have been saying for months would exclude runaways and anyone who seeks shelter the same day they lose their housing. We support this amendment. This amendment passed unanimously.

Presumption of safe housing. Chairman Mendelson introduced an amendment to establish a “presumption” that an applicant for shelter is not homeless if they are on a lease or occupancy agreement. The presumption, from which domestic violence survivors would be exempt, would put the burden on applicants to provide “credible evidence” that they cannot return to that housing. We outlined our opposition to putting the burden of proof on families, as well as the original "clear and convincing" requirement, in this blog. The Committee on Human Services pulled this language out of the bill at mark-up. Although the “credible evidence” standard in Chairman Mendelson's amendment is a lower burden of proof than the “clear and convincing evidence” requirement in the original bill, we still oppose this amendment. First, as Robert White said in debate, why isn’t a family’s application for shelter credible evidence that they believe they have no safe housing? Second, the language is now inconsistent with the HEARTH Act, which does not shift the burden of proof to applicants and makes it clear that oral statements are sufficient in these circumstances. Nevertheless, this amendment passed 8-5

Yes: Mendelson, Nadeau, Cheh, Evans, McDuffie, Todd, Allen, Bonds

No: Grosso, Robert White, Trayon White, Gray and Silverman

Residency exemption. Councilmembers Grosso and Nadeau co-introduced an amendment to exempt domestic violence survivors, people seeking asylum, refugees, and human trafficking victims from having to document their DC residency in order to get emergency shelter. We support this amendment. It passed unanimously.

Residency “catch-all.” Councilmember Grosso introduced an amendment to change the overly exclusive list of documents of DC residency (all accepted documents must be specifically listed in the statute or regulations, and almost all require a residential address within a certain time frame) to: “Any evidence that indicates the individual or family is living in the District voluntarily and not for a temporary purpose and who has no intention of presently moving from the District.” We support this amendment. It would close a critical gap in the safety net for vulnerable DC residents applying to emergency shelter on freezing nights. There was no fiscal impact to this amendment. Anita Bonds seemed to be reading from an old version of the bill when she was quoting a catch-all that no longer exists, and inquiring why both were needed, which caused much confusion in the debate. The Council rejected this amendment 12-1, with only Grosso supporting it.

Rapid re-housing time limits. Councilmember Trayon White introduced an amendment on Rapid Re-housing that would require a one-time extension of housing support from 12 to 18 months if the provider cannot demonstrate that the participant has had consistent case management services, has been referred to other housing programs, and will be able to stay in housing without further help. The fiscal impact was undetermined, and there was some consternation among Councilmembers about that issue. Strikingly, Brianne Nadeau, who presided over a hearing on this bill where 27 constituents and 7 organizations opposed the strict time limits, strongly opposed the amendment, saying: “I understand your compassion,” she said, “but at some point we have to draw the line. This is a short-term program. We have other programs.” She also restated the—widely refuted—claim of the Administration that the program is “80% successful.” Although seven Councilmembers expressed strong support for the amendment, the amendment failed on a 6-7 vote at the last minute when Anita Bonds, the Chair of the Housing Committee, stated: “I’ve been asked to vote no.”

Yes: Trayon White, Robert White, Grosso, McDuffie, Silverman, Gray

No: Nadeau, Mendelson, Bonds, Cheh, Evans, Todd, Allen

In sum, the bill got worse in some ways, better in some, yet remains a bill that will not help one person in DC, and will hurt many.

What’s next? First, hold your elected officials accountable. Thank Trayon White and David Grosso for working hard to improve this bill, then voting their conscience when they couldn’t get us all the way there. As for the other Councilmembers, demand better from them. Here is a summary of how each Councilmember voted on each contested amendment, along with their phone number and email. They have one more chance to get it right for the constituents they represent when they have their final vote, which will likely take place on December 5.

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