The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless supports the closure of DC General and its replacement with smaller, safer family shelters across DC. The Legal Clinic firmly believes that the solution to rampant family homelessness is the preservation and expansion of affordable family housing. However, DC must maintain adequate emergency shelter that is immediately available for those facing acute housing crises. The dangerous and poor conditions present at DC General are unacceptable.

DC is in the final stages of zoning for the 6 DC General replacement shelters. Zoning has been approved for 4 out of 6 shelters already. Unfortunately, neighborhood opposition is threatening zoning approval for the Ward 3 shelter and the Ward 5 shelter. On Friday, March 17th, ANC 5B adopted a resolution in opposition to the nearly all of the District’s requests for zoning relief for the Ward 5 shelter site. While the ANC resolution is to be given great weight in the zoning decision, it is not dispositive, and will be weighed against the District’s justification for its requests and other submissions in the case. We expect decision from the Board of Zoning Adjustments on the Wards 3and 5 applications in April.

For background, here’s an excerpt from Amber Harding’s testimony at the March 1 BZA hearing: 

This site is part of a vibrant neighborhood. It sits on multiple bus routes and within walking distance of the Rhode Island Metro station, the Woodridge Library, and Langdon Park and Recreation Center, which has a great playground. It is a great place to raise a family in this city, and many of us will be happy to welcome the new residents of our neighborhood when the shelter opens. 

I have listened to the concerns of some neighbors about the height of the building and the variances being sought out for months. I have been at every community meeting where it has been discussed other than the ANC5B meeting I missed last week. I have gone over the designs. I have heard the concerns about process and height and parking. I understand that DC is asking for multiple exceptions and variances today. I am not unsympathetic to the concerns that have been raised, nor do I think all neighbors with concerns are against having a shelter at this site. I would note, though, that I have never seen opposition to any other neighborhood development reach this level of vitriol and hyperbole– neighbors are, for instance, characterizing a six story building as a “tower” that will imperil the “soul of Brookland.” 

The BZA is often asked to grant variances and exceptions for development where profit is the aim, often at the expense of low-income communities who face displacement. Here, the BZA is being asked to grant relief to help those who have been displaced– to soften the blow of unfettered development by building a safe, humane shelter for families. That is a worthy justification for zoning relief. 

If the exceptions are not granted, then DC will have to either build a smaller shelter or find another site. If DC builds a smaller shelter, it will have to either reduce the number of shelter units—meaning the city will not meet the statutory requirement to close DC General and will be even further away from meeting the need for family shelter—or it will have to sacrifice some of the privacy or living space of the homeless families that will live in the shelter. That is unacceptable. If DC has to find another shelter site, it may experience significant delay to the closure of DC General or it might not be able to find another DC-owned site that works.—once again at the expense of homeless families. Even if DC could find another site, those neighbors might be even more emboldened to use this zoning process to fight having homeless families in their neighborhood. 

None of the design or zoning concerns that I have heard should override the needs of the homeless families who will live at this site. None of these concerns are more important than the need to close DC General with a sufficient number of units, the need to have units that provide dignity and privacy to residents, the public interest in providing an appropriate safety net for children in crisis, or the desire of families to raise their children in the same safe, supportive community that I raise my children in.