Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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City Paper reported on June 15 that senior officials in the D.C. government, including the “entire executive leadership team,” have known for months that contracting and construction issues have plagued the development of homeless shelters in Ward 7 and Ward 8. Those shelters, two of three initially scheduled to open this fall, are supposed to partially house the roughly 170 families who will be displaced when the D.C. General shelter closes this year. City Paper’s reporting showed that the subcontractor responsible for building the prefabricated modules and delivering them, Z Modular, was a functionally brand new company with little history in modular construction at the time it signed on to complete the projects.
In response, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, chair of the committee with oversight of Department of Human Services (which coordinates social services at shelters), and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the committee with oversight of Department of General Services (which manages construction of the homeless shelters), held a joint committee roundtable on Monday afternoon. The hearing, which stretched longer than five hours, clarified little about what senior officials knew, and when.

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Dismissing City Paper‘s reporting as “sensationalism,” DGS Director Greer Johnson Gillis doubled down on a “fall” delivery date for the Ward 7 and 8 shelters. The projected substantial completion date for the shelters moved from Aug. 31 to Oct. 1, she said Monday, though project manager Brian Butler expressed concerns about the Ward 8 site and noted that the new projected completion date could shift in the next three weeks. The government witnesses were under oath.
Below, City Paper fact-checks a handful of the statements made by government witnesses, which were at times misleading, if not incorrect.

1. That August 31, 2018 was an “internal milestone” for substantial completion.

DGS Director Gillis referred to an August 31 deadline for the shelters multiple times as an “internal milestone.” That is misleading. In the contract that the general contractor for the Ward 7 and Ward 8 sites, MCN Build, signed with DGS, it stipulated that August 31, 2018 was the contractually obligated substantial completion date for the shelters. (In fact, initial substantial completion, as shown in the contract between MCN Build and subcontractor Z Modular, was supposed to be March 16, 2018 for the Ward 8 shelter.)

2. That the short-term family housing sites were never intended to be replacements for D.C. General.

DHS Director Laura Zeilinger said that the department’s intent was “never to transfer” families from D.C. General directly to replacement shelters. Yet the Homeward DC plan––essentially the architecture for eliminating homelessness in D.C.––initially predicated the closure of D.C. General on the timely completion and opening of seven smaller shelters across the city. “The strategy to close DC General would enable us to replace the units at DC General in smaller facilities throughout our community at a one-to-one ratio,” Homeward DC reads. “When all of the new units are delivered, we can close DC General.” 

3. That DGS officials didn’t meet with Z Modular until 2017.

During a phone call with Gillis and Butler in mid-June, Gillis told City Paper that DGS first discussed working with executives from Z Modular––not yet a legal subsidiary of parent company Zekelman Industries––in the fall of 2016, around the time of DGS’s Request for Proposal process for the Ward 7 and 8 sites. When At-Large Councilmember Robert White asked Gillis when they first met with Z Modular, she replied that DGS team members first met with Z Modular representatives last year.

4. That housing conditions in emergency overflow shelters contracted by the city “are better” than conditions in D.C. General. 

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked Zeilinger why DHS is committed to closing D.C. General this fall if there’s even moderate doubt about the timely opening of shelters in Ward 7 and Ward 8. He pointed out that conditions in the motels aren’t exactly ideal. (D.C. pays tens of millions of dollars per year to house homeless residents in motels on New York Avenue NE as “temporary” shelter, though many have lived there for years.) Zeilinger replies that conditions “may be better” in the motels than they are in D.C. General. Gillis interjected, saying definitively that conditions in motels “are better” than they are in D.C. General. City Paper’s own reporting, as well as reports from legal service providers, do not support that conclusion. Residents have complained of mold, rodents, unsafe conditions for children, a lack of social services, and sexual abuse––many of the same problems that have long plagued D.C. General.

5. That DGS notified Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners of the construction delays and schedule changes as soon as it became aware of them.

During a line of questioning, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh asked Gillis directly: “As soon as you knew about [schedule changes], you told [residents]?” Gillis paused before saying “yes.” That is not true. City Paper’s reporting showed that DGS officials became aware of delays in construction as early as February. Public slideshows created by DGS and presented to ANCs in Wards 7 and 8 in early May told residents that all work would be completed in a timely manner. City Paper‘s discussions with advisory team members from Ward 8 reveal that residents weren’t notified until June that DGS planned on extending construction hours until 1 a.m. because of concerns about completing construction on time. 

Zeilinger interjected Gillis’s response to confirm that ANCs weren’t informed until June. “Whoops,” Cheh said, staring at Gillis.