Ward 7 shelter
Ward 7 shelter Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Last week, City Paper reported that senior officials in the D.C. government—including the “entire executive leadership team”—have known for months that contracting and construction issues have delayed the production of homeless shelters in Wards 7 and 8. 

Those shelters, two of three initially scheduled to open this fall, are supposed to partially house some of the 250 families who will be displaced when the D.C. General shelter closes this year. But 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.

And despite having known since at least February that the company wasn’t on track to deliver fully-furnished modular units as expected, officials from the Department of General Services repeatedly, and publicly, promised residents that the shelters were projected to open on time. When City Paper asked a spokesperson for the mayor why her administration continued to assure the public that the shelters would open on time despite public documents detailing delays, the spokesperson said, “Mayor Bowser has been informed that all timing adjustments have been made and our short term family housing will open on schedule.”

In response to City Paper’s findings, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, chair of the committee with oversight of Department of Human Services (the agency responsible for coordinating services at shelters), and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the committee with oversight of DGS, announced a joint committee roundtable to be held on Monday, June 25. They’ll interview government witnesses under oath about the shelter delays.

Expected to attend the roundtable is At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who says he was “furious” after reading City Paper’s reporting and visiting the Ward 8 site this week. White says that his requests to meet with officials from DGS and DHS went unanswered for days, until a Bowser administration official told White they wouldn’t meet with him until Friday, June 22. (His meeting request was kicked up to the office of the City Administrator.) “[That] to me is unacceptable and pointless. They waited until the hearing was scheduled to respond with a time to meet,” White says.

At the roundtable, he’d like to find out “why the Council and public was told there wasn’t a delay, when it seems they knew;” when the city “should realistically expect the shelters to be fully ready for families to move in;” and “clarity on who chose Z Modular as a subcontractor.” 

But city officials, including DHS Director Laura Zeilinger and DGS project manager Brian Butler, have already assured Nadeau’s committee that the shelters were on track. On March 14, during a human services committee hearing on the closure of D.C. General, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman asked Zeilinger whether “we have a firm date on opening [the] shelters?” 

“Um, no,” Zeilinger says, “We have a projection that they’ll be open, ready in the fall.” Pushed for specifics, she added: “By October is when we expect to be in. But what’s most important is the buildings are fully ready and we don’t rush it to meet a date.” At the time, email communications obtained by City Paper through Freedom of Information Act requests show, DGS wasn’t even sure it would preserve its contract with the company responsible for building the shelters. 

On Feb. 1, the documents show, top officials in DGS were aware of delays at both the Ward 7 and 8 sites. Just one month later, agency leaders floated the idea of cutting ties with the companies it hired to build and manage the shelters, DGS Director Greer Johnson Gillis confirmed to City Paper last week. 

By March 2, DGS official George Lewis sent a “Notice to Accelerate” to the general contractor on the Ward 7 and 8 shelters, MCN Build. These warnings indicate that the projects weren’t progressing on schedule, and they included a request that the contractor develop two updated construction timelines—one of them a projection of the shelters’ completion should the city eliminate its contract with Z Modular. (One of the revised worst-case-scenario schedules says that if D.C. decides to step in and terminate Z Modular’s contract for the Ward 8 site, its substantial completion date could move to July 18, 2019, nearly one year behind schedule.)

Yet in public and in private, officials continued to tell residents the shelters were on track for a fall delivery. During a Feb. 28 meeting for members of the Ward 8 shelter’s advisory team––a group of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, D.C. Council staffers, educators, and residents––employees of three different city agencies told the group that the Ward 8 shelter was on track. Representatives from DGS, DHS, and the Office on African American Affairs told the crowd that the Ward 8 shelter was set to erect modules in May.

A May construction “update” posted to the DGS website for the Ward 8 shelter made no mention of the known delays, despite the fact that Z Modular was scheduled to have begun its module delivery that month. (When City Paper visited the site on June 13, not a single module had been delivered.) A separate DGS post updating Ward 7 stakeholders on that shelter’s progress posted photos of the “module erection,” making no note of the fact that the modules were supposed to arrive fully furnished, but instead came only as exoskeletons made of steel framing.

It wasn’t until mid-June, weeks after Z Modular was supposed to hit its first delivery benchmark, that anybody from the city told ANC commissioners or members of the Ward 8 advisory team about the delays. Olivia Henderson, the chairperson of ANC 8D, tells City Paper that it was during a phone call around June 10 that an official told her that MCN Build would need to apply for more permits to complete the project.

“They said they wanted to extend the hours because they’re a little behind schedule,” Henderson says. “The modules weren’t dropped off when they were supposed to. They [said] they were supposed to have been dropped off about two weeks ago.” 

On June 13, a policy analyst from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services emailed Ward 8’s advisory team to inform them that DGS “will be expanding their construction hours from 7:00 a.m. – 1:00 a.m. Monday – Saturday,” a schedule that will last until Sept. 30. (MCN Build is contractually obligated to deliver the completed shelters by Aug. 31.)

Now, Henderson has to deliver the news of the dramatically extended hours to the residents in 8D.

For her part, Bowser has continued to promise that the city will demolish D.C. General this year, a core tenet of her inaugural mayoral campaign. “Coming into office, I promised we would close D.C. General and replace it with smaller, dignified programs throughout all eight wards that do more to support our most vulnerable families. This year, we will make good on that commitment–D.C. General will close forever,” she said during her March 15 State of the District address. 

“I know some people think that we’re moving too quickly, or that we’re only trying to free up land. But let me say this and let me be clear, when it comes to closing D.C. General, we cannot move fast enough. That shelter is an embarrassment to our city, and I will not be the mayor who passes up on the opportunity to demolish it,” Bowser said.