Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The District is spending more than $80,000 a night to house approximately 600 homeless families on an emergency basis in motels and hotels in D.C. and Maryland because its family shelters are at capacity. But under a new initiative Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration is pursuing, those numbers could come down with help from private landlords in the city.

Today the D.C. Department of General Services, which handles city real-estate matters, published a solicitation in search of property owners who could provide “bridge housing” for the most at-risk families. The idea is similar to the District’s rapid re-housing program for families transitioning out of homelessness, but in this case D.C. would sign two- to three-year master leases with providers for move-in-ready apartments ranging from one- to three-bedrooms. Fewer hotel rooms would be necessary to house families—assuming that a sufficient number of qualified landlords participate.

Specifically, the administration requires that properties have at least 15 but no more than 50 units, and will give “the highest consideration” to “entire buildings with 25 to 50 units.” (The solicitation notes that properties “which allow for less than 15 units may also be suitable in certain locations.”) The District says it’s also open to apartments that may need to be renovated, and that it would provide supportive services to homeless families at the properties, likely in community rooms or other available spaces.

“Property owners will provide property management of the property,” the solicitation explains. “Partially occupied buildings will not be accepted. However, sites/properties which include multiple buildings may be considered.” The District will award points to landlords if their buildings are within two blocks of a Metro station or within four blocks of a bus station. It’s hoping to find units that are renting at “competitive market value.”

Laura Zeilinger, director of the Department of Human Services, says the number of families in emergency shelter dropped 17 percent between January 2017 and the year before. “The bridge housing will be a more effective and efficient means of serving families needing a temporary placement during a housing crisis while we continue to implement the strategies in our strategic plan and reduce our reliance on motel rooms,” she says in a statement.

City Paper has asked DHS for information on how much these leases could cost and whether it will check if landlord-applicants have a history of negligence. We will update this post if we hear back. The District has placed some homeless families into buildings run by slumlords under the rapid re-housing program, even though the program involves housing-quality inspections.

Kate Coventry, an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute who specializes in homeless services, says the requirements that properties be in D.C. and near transit are beneficial. “This will mean that families currently being sheltered in Maryland hotels can come back to the District, so they can more easily bring their kids to school and access job training and other services they may need,” she says. On-site services will also reduce the burden on families living at “far-flung motels.”

But it remains to be seen how many landlords will apply for the program and how much money it could save D.C. as compared to motels and hotels. “I don’t think we’re going to be worse off in the end,” Coventry says, noting that the rooms D.C. is booking range from $92 to $200 a night. “We don’t know what kind of response we’re going to get, but at least we’re trying.”

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the D.C. Council’s human services committee, says she’s reviewing Bowser’s plan but believes it’s a good idea on its face. “We can’t afford to keep spending $80,000 a night on hotels when we know that’s not even a good arrangement for the families,” she says

Based on March data, there were more than 600 homeless families in hotels and motels this year versus more than 900 in 2016. In the mayor’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, $16 million is allocated for emergency hotel rooms for homeless families, an amount that is expected to decrease over the next three years.

This isn’t the only effort the Bowser administration is taking to reduce the pressure on the District’s family homeless system, which currently serves fewer than 1,000 families. Last year, the mayor proposed a bill that would tighten the requirements for families that can access emergency shelter, citing significant costs from hotels when some families might have options. Homeless advocates criticized the measure, arguing that it would make it even harder for families in crisis to stay off the streets and out of cars at night, especially during hypothermia season. The D.C. Council has not yet held a public hearing on the legislation.

The administration is also preparing to build new family shelters to replace the deteriorating D.C. General homeless shelter, which now houses about 250 families. Recently, controversial shelters planned for Wards 3 and 5 cleared independent zoning review.