April 2017 Letter from Councilmember Cheh on the Proposed Ward 3 Shelter for Families Experiencing Homelessness

Greetings Residents,

Since I last wrote to you in May of 2016, in a letter outlining my position on the Ward 3 temporary housing facility, the nature of the discussion surrounding the shelter has evolved and progressed. I am writing now to let you know what has happened since May and my thoughts on the location, parking, community garden, height, cost, and variance requests. After numerous meetings with the community, the ANC, and the Advisory Team (AT), conversations have concentrated on these specific community concerns and how the District can address them. My hope is that, after reading, residents will gain a greater understanding of what’s been happening and how we arrived at this point as a community.

How we got here

We can all agree that we must do our part to tackle the problem of homelessness in the District. In 2015, the Mayor published the Homeward DC plan, which sets the ambitious, but morally necessary, goal to close DC General and end long-term homelessness in DC by 2020. Accordingly, each Ward will have one temporary housing facility intended for families with children experiencing homelessness (Ward 2 will have facility for homeless women). Seventy-five percent of these families are headed by a single parent with very young children; 45% of DC’s homeless population is under 4 years old. These residents experiencing homelessness deserve better than the conditions at DC General, and the District has an obligation to devise a solution.

The Mayor’s plan required the District to identify 270-280 units dispersed equally across short-term facilities located in each of the Wards that met the following criteria: (1) roughly 30,000 square feet, (2) close to public transportation, (3) economically feasible, and (4) large enough and able to completed in time to close DC General.

The Mayor’s original site for the shelter in Ward 3 was a privately owned lot at the intersection of Wisconsin and Edmunds. The plan called for the construction of a shelter on private land leased by the District at a cost of at least $39 million (to be discussed later). The Council agreed that this proposal, and indeed sites in Wards 3, 5, and 6, which the Council viewed as a package, was too costly and, moreover, unjustifiably left the District beholden to a private landowner for this essential service.

Site Selection

On February 11, 2016, the Mayor transmitted the Homeward DC plan to the Council and presented the Ward 3 shelter site and plan before the community. The legislation was referred to the Committee of the Whole and a public hearing was held on March 17th.  At the public meeting in February and the public hearing on all of the shelters held on March 17th, residents expressed concerns about the cost of leasing the Wisconsin Avenue site and the feasibility of providing adequate services at that location. Residents suggested the possibility of relocating the site to benefit the District and those experiencing homelessness; on a number of occasions, the Second District site was mentioned as an alternative.

The Council looked for new sites in the Ward that were District-owned or could be purchased by the District in order to contain costs and best provide social services. On April 6th, I sent a letter to Director Weaver of the Dept. of General Services (DGS) asking him to examine or reexamine the following sites suggested to me by residents as alternatives: the 2nd District police station, the former City Church building on River Road, a former Polish diplomatic residence in Forest Hills around the corner from my house, and the Mayor’s original location at the intersection of Wisconsin and Edmunds. Dir. Weaver’s response defended the Mayor’s original proposal by claiming that negotiations to purchase these other land parcels from the private owners did not succeed and the 2D site was infeasible because it would require the temporary relocation of MPD operations during construction. That final point has been shown to be incorrect.

Despite Dir. Weaver’s response, the 2nd District location rose to favor in the face of the enormous cost to lease the Wisconsin Avenue shelter site over 15-25 years. The 2D location meets the mayor’s qualifications and is already District property. Moreover, it presents additional benefits that others did not; the site is located adjacent to a police station, providing safety to both residents of the shelter and the neighborhood, and it adheres to the recommendations in the comprehensive plan to co-locate government services[1] on a single site. For those reasons, on May 17st, 2016, the Council recommended moving the Ward 3 site to the Idaho Avenue location. The sites in Wards 5 and 6 were also recommended to be moved due to the high cost of leasing the sites. I held a community meeting on Thursday, May 26th, to discuss the 2D site. And on May 31, the Council passed the Homeless Shelter Replacement Act of 2016 as amended.

I agree that the 2D site does present a series of challenges; however, that is true of all sites. Each location examined had its advantages and drawbacks. That being said, I strongly believe that the challenges presented by this location can be overcome in a way that best addresses the concerns of the community and satisfies the needs of those experiencing homelessness. Allow me to acknowledge some of these larger challenges and provide a response and clarification.

Where will young shelter residents go to school?

By right, children in the shelter will be allowed to attend Eaton elementary school; Federal Law requires that children be allowed to attend the school to which they are zoned through the end of the school year while in temporary housing.

I’d like to restate some of points that I’ve made before. The likely effects on John Eaton are less than what I think many imagine, and whatever effects there are can be addressed. Approximately 80 children are expected to reside at the shelter. Of those, approximately 45% will be below the age of 4, approximately 45% will be elementary-school aged, and another approximately 10% will be middle-school or high-school aged; this means there will likely be only 36 elementary school-aged children. If current trends hold for elementary school-aged children— i.e. that the vast majority of parents will choose to keep their children in their previous school to minimize academic disruption— then only 2-4 students will actually attend Eaton. Some have argued, though, that the excellent education at Eaton is likely to draw more of those 36 children. Assuming that all of those children are elementary school-aged, and even assuming that all of those children want to attend Eaton—both unlikely scenarios—the school can nonetheless adapt. Half of Eaton’s student body is out-of-boundary. If there is reason to believe that the enrollment will increase, adjustments can be made to decrease the number of new out-of-boundary students who are enrolled, opening up spots for children in the shelter.

What’s more, students living at the shelter who leave before the end of the school year will be treated in the same manner as students who move outside Eaton’s boundary during the school year – i.e. they have a right to attend the neighborhood school through the end of the year, but not into the next. Finally, those shelter students who do enroll bring with them at-risk funding dollars, which means they will, in fact, bring more resources to Eaton.

District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is accustomed to meeting the needs of transient student populations across the District, especially in Ward 3. Our Ward is home to ambassadors, diplomats, embassy staffers, and other government workers who are here temporarily. Many have children who chose to attend our public schools for the duration of their time here. Interestingly enough, for historical reasons, students at Bolling Airforce Base attend Eaton by right. Accommodating the needs of transient students is not new for DCPS, and I am confident that they will be able to allocate resources accordingly to Eaton after the shelter is constructed.

The Community Gardens and Tennis Courts

In May 2016, when the Council’s legislation named the 2D site as the facility’s location and before design proposals were conceived, I made clear to the Department of Human Services (DHS) that the community gardens and the tennis courts were not to be affected. Any site or construction plan disrupting the use of these community amenities was a non-starter. I reaffirmed that assertion during the discussion about expanding the parking deck, a point I’ll turn to shortly. In any case, constructing either the shelter or parking structure over the wall and on to the community garden would have been cost prohibitive due to the significant grade variation between the parking lot and the gardens. My position on the gardens had no effect on the size, shape, or design of the proposed building.

Height and Design

The short-term family housing facility is designed in a way that promotes a sense of community and safety within the building by following the design recommendations of the Interagency Council on Homelessness[2] (ICH). It and the Dept. of Human Services[3] agree that a 50-unit facility with 10 units per floor is the ideal arrangement to achieve economies of scale and successfully provide services to families experiencing homelessness. For that reason, the proposed building will sit on a simple rectangular footprint and rise six stories:  one reserved for meals, services, and a welcome area; the other five for residential units. Simplicity of the design is key. Simplicity cultivates a sense of security by eliminating corners, blind spots, and limited sightlines, allowing parents to always keep an eye on their children as they socialize on their floor. Ten units on each floor is considered ideal for creating communal spaces that allow cooperation and collaboration among residents without the potential for feeling overcrowded. More units would diminish privacy, safety, and personal ownership of the space. A building with fewer stories, two wings, or social services located at the basement level is not preferred or practical as any complication of the simple floor plan diminishes these advantages and dilutes the welcoming, service-oriented nature that the facility intends to embody.

So, why did the old site contain only 38 units? The original site faced limitations that prohibited the construction of a 50-unit facility; the site was 17,600 square feet. Although the ICH’s recommendations allow for modifications in egregious circumstances, the 2D site does not present the same limitations. It is about 200,000 sq. ft. —the shelter will occupy about 56,000 sq. ft.[4] — and can feasibly handle the 50 units recommended.

What I hope residents understand is that each and every aspect of the building is designed with a goal in mind. Alternative designs in response to community concerns about the height were considered. But, ultimately, they were determined to be infeasible due to their inability to meet the programmatic needs of the facility and their projected cost.


The status quo is expensive. Currently, the District pays for interim repairs and maintenance at DC General, the services families need, and overflow hotel rooms when units legally required during hypothermia season and DC General is at its maximum capacity.

To evaluate the cost of the temporary shelter, it is important at the outset to appreciate that cost metrics like cost-per-unit or cost-per-square foot are not apposite. This is not a conventional economic market exercise. We are not building apartments for lease. These units are a part of a network of social services designed to close DC General and empower individuals experiencing homelessness by providing them the support they need in order to relocate into permanent housing. Unlike a traditional housing unit, a single shelter unit would serve multiple families over the course of a year. Metrics like cost-per-unit or cost-per-square foot ignore the fact that the HomewardDC project uniquely marries social services and temporary housing.

In the Mayor’s original plan, the District would have paid an enormous amount of money over the course of 15-25 years for the Ward 3 shelter only to own nothing in the end. Again, the plan involved leasing the site at the intersection of Wisconsin and Edmunds for $2.1 million per year, initially for 15 years, with the guaranteed option to extend for 1 year for 10 years. The total cost after the initial 15 years would be about $39 million; with all extensions, the total cost would be $56.4 million. After spending this money over the course of up to 25 years, the site and the facility would be returned to the private land owner and the District would have to search for units in the Ward, again, to shelter residents experiencing homelessness. The Council concluded that this was an inefficient way to spend money.

In contrast, the shelter on Idaho Avenue will cost $18.7 million and be owned by the District. Constructing the shelter on the 2D site significantly lowers the overall cost and secures the District’s ability to provide this service in the future. Separately but relatedly, the parking structure will cost $7.5 million and serve as a benefit to the community and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).


The current site plan calls for a three-level parking deck that would provide enough parking to accommodate all MPD-related vehicles on the 2D site. This will completely remove police and officers’ personal vehicles from the public space and free up about 60 spaces on the street for residents and guests. This will prove to be a significant amenity to the community.

Construction of the parking structure is expected to take about 8 months. During this time, construction will displace about 100 parking spaces on the 2D site, meaning that we’ll have to work together to devise an interim, 8-month, plan to accommodate those lost spaces during construction. As residents know, we are in the midst of working with the community to find offsite and on-street parking to accommodate MPD vehicles. Once the deck is completed and construction begins on the shelter, all MPD related vehicles will be parked on site.

So far, the Dept. of General Services (DGS) has presented four interim parking plans to the community. You can view a draft of the proposals here. All four account for 100 spaces available at the Fannie Mae site from 7:00pm- 7:00am, Fannie Mae employees will need the parking during the other hours, and 30 spaces provided by Cathedral Commons for residents. The variations of the plans are as follows: the first reserves spaces for MPD on non-RPP blocks in the area. The second reserves spaces on Wisconsin Avenue during non-rush hours. The third reserves spaces close to Fannie Mae, because residents near the campus are more likely to park in the spaces we’ve secured there, freeing up street spaces for MPD. And, the fourth converts the tennis courts into a parking lot; but, to restate my position from the very beginning, neither Chairman Mendelson nor I will support the use of the tennis courts and community garden as an interim parking solution due to the negative effects on the community. Although DGS told the Zoning Board it wanted to preserve the use of the tennis courts as a last resort, the agency has committed to working diligently with the community to devise an interim parking alternative to minimize the negative effects on residents.  All of the current DGS parking plans are drafts only. DGS will take feedback and suggestions from residents and return to the community with revised plans.

Board of Zoning Adjustment

On March 1st, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) held a hearing on the zoning relief requested by DGS: a height variance, permission to place an additional primary structure (the shelter) on a single lot, and permission to convert the tennis courts into a parking lot on a temporary basis. The board heard testimony from residents and the ANC both in support of and in opposition to the variance requests. On, April 5th, the board voted to approve all of DGS’s variance requests, without condition.

In my letter to the Chairperson of the board, I expressed my support for the shelter to be built as the experts have deemed most appropriate. I said that I believe the people of Ward 3 want to do their part to help residents, especially children, who find themselves in dire circumstances; that they want to welcome them to Ward 3; and that they find it right and fitting that we do this as a community.

This process is ongoing: the 8-month interim parking issue must be resolved, a “good neighbor agreement” must be established, and other issues will undoubtedly arise as efforts proceed. I intend to remain engaged, and I encourage those interested to stay abreast of efforts by the ANC and the Advisory Team. For now, I hope this information provides a better understanding of how and why we are here and I hope you will join me in supporting this project going forward.





[2] http://ich.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ich/page_content/attachments/ICH-StratPlan2.9-Web.pdf

[3] http://dmhhs.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dmhhs/publication/attachments/10.27.15-RPT_ICH-Design-Principles_10-16-15_Final.pdf

[4] https://app.dcoz.dc.gov/Content/Search/ViewCaseReport.aspx?case_id=19450




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