For the past 25 years, many organizations that serve the homeless in America have been able to do so with a free supply of real estate: surplus federal property that the government no longer wants. Old warehouses have been turned into food banks. Small agency office buildings have been converted to counseling centers. Decommissioned military housing now sometimes shelters the homeless.
But in a reality of the recession, as America’s homeless ranks have risen, so too has the pressure in Washington to make a buck by selling these properties.
“The issue has kind of devolved into a complex one, and at its heart, it’s actually not a complicated issue,” said Jeremy Rosen, policy director for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “It was thought, quite correctly at the time — and I believe it’s still quite correct today — that if the federal government has property that homeless providers could use, and homeless providers need property, why don’t we match that up?”
This idea dates to the 1987 McKinney-Vento Act, the first comprehensive federal law dealing with homelessness. The law governs the homeless assistance program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development; it also protects the rights of homeless children to enroll in school. One piece of the bill — called Title V — requires that the federal government must first offer surplus properties to homeless service providers at no cost before giving them away for other public uses or selling them to private buyers.
The offer is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. Last week HUD published the latest list of hundreds of excess properties for the taking, from a 900-square-foot vehicle maintenance shop in Tulelake, California, to an 18,000-square-foot storage facility in Harford, Maryland. As always, homeless services have 60 days to apply for property from the latest list and must show they’ll make efficient use of what they take.
“The [federal] government, it turns out, owns a lot of land and buildings,” Rosen said. It is, in fact, the nation’s largest owner of land and buildings. “It owns so much that there’s sort of always more of it that’s becoming surplus for various reasons. They really never do actually run out.”
The homeless program has used only a small fraction of all that handy-me-down property. Rosen estimates that out of about 14,000 properties that have gone through this process, homeless groups have passed on all but about 500.
“The reason is that they’re totally junky properties; they’re like a shack on a runway in a military base. Or once we saw storage igloos in Alaska,” he said. “Most of them, if they’re not sold, it’s because if a homeless service provider doesn’t want them, nobody wants them. You’re not going to put a Dunkin’ Donuts in a shack on an air field in North Dakota. And Donald Trump doesn’t want it.”
Those few hundred properties, though, have made an impact. The Law Center says that Title V benefits about 2.4 million homeless people each year by enabling transitional housing for more than 17,000 people, counseling centers that aid 135,000 homeless, and food pantries that provided 2.2 million meals.
Given the public costs of mental health treatment, hospital stays or serving homeless children absorbed by child welfare, several studies suggest that supportive housing for the homeless is cost-effective in the long run.
“Do they back up 100 percent against the cost of a [free] building?” Rosen asked. “Maybe not. But certainly we think they stack up as considerable numbers, which help to justify why it makes sense to dispose of properties this way.”
Throughout the law’s history it’s had critics who viewed Title V as another layer of red tape between the federal government and quick revenue from unused properties. Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill that would undo homeless agencies’ right of first refusal. The Obama administration has been targeting it as well; it’s currently fighting a longstanding court injunction to force the federal government to comply — under heavy scrutiny — with the original law.
Homeless advocates, including the Law Center, have accused federal agencies of “land-banking” unused properties to avoid turning them over, in much the same way people shove unloved old appliances in the closet instead of giving them away. “[The agencies] really hate to give them up,” Rosen said. “Instead, they just kind of hang onto them and pretend, ‘Gosh we’ll maybe we’ll use it four, five, 10 years from now.’”
The Obama administration said it’s trying to end homelessness in America within a decade, which makes its position on Title V a great irony in the meantime, Rosen believes. But the position is consistent with other administration plans — from the Office of Management and Budget, not HUD — to streamline supposedly excessive government regulation.
“[People] just hear, ‘Hey, there’s a great bill that would let us sell property that the government has been hanging onto and make money,’” Rosen suggested. “That seems pretty obvious. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?”