Mayor Bowser’s Proposed Changes to Homeless Services Law:

Reducing Bathrooms in DC General Replacement Units


The question of the number of bathrooms needed in the DC General Replacement Units has been discussed at length in the past and settled already by the Council in the current version of this law. Yet, DHS is attempting to restart that debate by eliminating the requirement for two multi-fixture bathrooms per floor. This would leave a requirement of only one bathroom for every 5 units, meaning that 20-30 people could share one bathroom. This is an inhumane plan for how to plan for bathrooms in the new facilities.*

Kathy Zeisel, Children’s Law Center


In the fall of 2015, vigorous debate surrounded the planning and design of the buildings that will serve as emergency shelter for families experiencing homelessness in DC, replacing DC General as the primary destination for families placed in shelter by the DC Department of Human Services. The eventual closure of the infamous DC General, once the only public hospital in DC and now shelter to hundreds of families, is long awaited by many in the District.

Bathrooms became a focal point of this debate—specifically, whether the shelters should include private or communal bathrooms for families. The debate culminated in a DC Council vote supporting, and memorializing in law, Mayor Bowser’s refusal to provide each family with a private bathroom and establishing a standard in the law for a minimum bathroom ratio.

The Legal Clinic’s position, supported by the experiences and stated needs of homeless families, has always been that the best, safest, and most dignified standard is for families to have access to private bathrooms. Having seen the designs of the replacement shelters, we continue to believe that the goal of 100% private bathrooms is entirely realistic and feasible, and that requiring private bathrooms would not prevent the closure of DC General.

Despite having refused, ultimately with the blessing of the Council, to commit to 100% private bathrooms in 2015, the current designs recently put forth by the Bowser Administration are much improved from the low floor set out in the 2015 legislation.

  • The designs do not contemplate any multi-fixture bathrooms.
  • There are more private bathrooms than required by current law.
  • There are many more “family bathrooms,” than contemplated in the law, meaning bathrooms that only one family at a time can use, but that are shared with multiple families.
  • There are several single toilet and sink “half bathrooms” on each floor.

In further good news, we recently learned that all bathrooms, and all rooms, are fully wheelchair accessible. This is amazing progress for the District, which less than ten years ago entered into a settlement with the Department of Justice for its failure to comply with federal disability rights laws in its shelter system.


Current law:

The 2015 law set a minimum of one private bathroom per ten units, one family bathroom per five units and “at least 2 multi-fixture bathrooms per floor that shall include multiple toilets, sinks and showers.” D.C. Code § 4-753.01(d).

Mayor Bowser’s Proposed Change:

The bill removes the multi-fixture bathroom requirement, leaving the bathroom requirements as one private bathroom per ten units and two family bathrooms per ten units. This reduces the total number of required bathrooms for families from five bathrooms (some with multiple toilets and showers) per ten families to three bathrooms per ten families. Because one of the bathrooms is private, the two remaining bathrooms would be shared by nine families. This standard is far below what the Council agreed to in the fall of 2015 and even far below what the Administration has included in its blueprints for the shelters.


We are incredibly concerned about the reduction in the number of bathrooms that will be built in the DC General replacement shelters, threatening the safety, health, and privacy of DC’s children.

Monica Kamen, Fair Budget Coalition

Our Recommendation:

We agree with Mayor Bowser that the shelters do not need multi-fixture bathrooms if there are sufficient private or family bathrooms to enable easy, safe access to toilets and baths/showers. Unfortunately, their proposal brings the legal standard far below what the Council decided would be sufficient in 2015, and far below what most people would agree is humane.

In a document submitted to the Committee on Human Services by the Legal Clinic, Bread for the City, DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Children’s Law Center, Fair Budget Coalition, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, and Neighborhood Legal Services Program, we proposed the following:

Buildings composed of DC General Family Shelter replacement units shall include, at minimum: (A) Either a private bathroom for every DC General replacement unit; or (B) Sufficient bathrooms for all residents, including at a minimum:  (i) A private bathroom, including a toilet, sink, and bathtub or shower, in at least 10% of the DC General Family Shelter replacement units; (ii) For every 2 DC General Family Shelter replacement units, one private, lockable bathroom that includes a toilet, sink, and bathtub and shall be accessible to all residents; and (iii) For every 10 DC General Family Shelter replacement units, 3 half bathrooms (that include a toilet and sink) that shall be accessible to all residents.

In other words, the law should reflect that the shelters must either have all private bathrooms, or must have sufficient bathrooms as contemplated by the designs we have seen of the new shelters. The second option in this language, Option B, is really a placeholder for the standard that Mayor Bowser is currently designing. We hope the Committee can work with the Administration to fine tune “Option B” to reflect an accurate proportion and mix of bathrooms. We also ask the Committee to exercise its critical oversight over homeless services and require that the Administration support its claim that its designs maximize private bathrooms.

It is not too late to make these changes. In fact, this is the ideal time as architects are still fine tuning designs and building has not begun. A year from now, or five years from now, when families are living in these buildings and we have spent millions of dollars and political capital to build new shelters—then it will be too late to make these shelters the kind of dignified and humane buildings that District families deserve to stay in until they get back on their feet.

Henri Makembe, ANC 5B03 Commissioner (ANC where Ward 5 DC General replacement shelter will be built)


*Quotes are from written testimony submitted to the Committee on Human Services regarding the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017.