For years, residents and officials in Washington, D.C., have debated what to do with an abandoned federal warehouse at 49 L Street SE. Parked a block from both the Nationals Ballpark and the Navy Yard Metro Station, the warehouse couldn’t hope to occupy a better location. A formerly forlorn pocket of the city marked by gay clubs and empty federal warehouses, Navy Yard is now known as Capitol Riverfront—to developers, anyway—and features two of the city’s flashier urban parks, Yards Park and Canal Park.
While neighbors dreamed up plans for a Half Street Market, and members of Congress even convened a hearing (inside the warehouse!) to discuss why the General Services Administration moved so slowly in selling off its disused property, the fate of 49 L Street SE was set decades ago. It will be used as a homeless shelter, or more specifically, a transitional services facility with permanent supportive housing for seniors.
In San Francisco, there’s an underused federal parking lot adjacent to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that’s every bit as desirable. Located at 1064–68 Mission Street, two blocks from two different world-famous Blue Bottle Coffee roasters, the surface parking lot is valued at $35 million. Soon it will likely be used to build two buildings with some 250 units of permanent supportive housing.
Given soaring land costs, zoning laws, and neighborhood opposition, building a homeless shelter in trendy SoMa (in San Francisco) or D.C.’s Navy Yard might seem unthinkable. But in both D.C. and S.F., city agencies will use these federal parcels to help the homeless, with the full backing of federal law. And it won’t cost the city a thing.
That’s because a 30-year-old federal law obligates the government to make disused federal properties available for sheltering the homeless wherever possible. Further, a bill passed by Congress in December 2016 enables local governments, housing nonprofits, and faith-based organizations to essentially bypass the veto of neighborhood associations and zoning commissions.
Title V—that’s the name of the 1987 provision that transfers disused federal properties to homeless-service providers—addresses one of the most vexing questions dogging many American cities. There’s vacant property everywhere, and there are homeless people everywhere. So why the hell don’t we use that property to house the homeless?