Housing Complex

Occupy Lead and Asbestos-Laden Buildings!

People really shouldn't be living in there. (Lydia DePillis)

On Saturday, members of Occupy DC—sort of, given that the action wasn't approved in a General Assembly—snuck into the vacant Franklin School at 13th and K Street NW, protesting the fact that it had been unused since the city closed a homeless shelter there in 2008. Before they were hauled out, one told me that they planned to clean up the interior and live there, and that it was in good enough shape to serve as shelter for people who had none.

That's probably not true at all. According to the District's Department of General Services, a building assessment in 2008 showed that the historic school contained enough lead and asbestos that it wasn't fit for human habitation. Which probably means that the school should have never been used as a shelter in the first place—had the extent of the contamination been known, homeless advocates would have been pissed at the city for exposing people to toxic dust.

Well, you might argue, shouldn't the city have cleaned up the contamination enough so people could live there instead of letting it sit vacant for three years, given that would have to be done anyway in preparation for some future use?

Maybe. But I'd counter that it would be a much more efficient use of city funds to instead build or improve some other facility. The Fenty administration didn't really have plans in place to do that when it kicked everyone out in 2008, saying that it was working on permanent supportive housing to replace the 300 beds lost. Emergency shelters are necessary, and we've been closing them down, not building new ones (though Central Union Mission is shooting to re-open at the Gales School at 65 Massachusetts Avenue in 2013). So I can't say the city made up for the loss.

As for the argument that the school should be maintained for public use, instead of becoming a boutique hotel: Well, Matt Yglesias already addressed that one. If a hotel operator would generate more dollars for the city through hefty taxes on room rates, let them rehab the extensively landmarked building—and maybe tie the revenue to homeless services, so that it doesn't disappear into the general fund.

Of course, the Occupiers will now say the action was a success purely because we're now all talking about Franklin Shelter. Fine, but that request for proposals is still going out, the company with some $20 million to spend on renovation will still win, and that will be better for D.C. than letting it sit empty for another three years.

  • http://lastgoodcountry.com Dave Stroup

    I would agree with Jason Cherkis that perhaps occupying D.C. General would be a more effective direct action.

  • Legba Carrefour

    @Lydia: Some of the people involved were never part of the McPherson occupation and autonomous action has always been acknowledged as fine for people who are involved with the occupation to do. Occupy DC isn't an organization so any other approach else would be kind of silly and policing who does what would be a Sisyphean nightmare.

    As for Matt Yglesias, he sort of misses the point. "In the longer run, we'll have more employment and fewer social problems in the city if we let land that's ideally suited for hotel uses to be used for hotels." --> (1) You're making the assumption that the people involved were people who are particularly committed to either capitalism OR state management, (2) the site itself has a historical significance with a lot of buy-in for DC residents so that people would want it to be something permanently open and accessible to all as opposed to something closed off to those who could afford it (a hotel) isn't really a surprise.

    Raw economic potential and possible tax revenue aren't really the measures by which you judge whether or not something should be occupied. We're talking about a very different set of political analyses here.

    It's pretty indicative that Yglesias is missing the point when he starts his argument by condescendingly calling people engaging in activism "misguided" like he's a sage in the fine art of non-violent direct action. He's also referring to it as an "off-shoot of the Occupy DC movement"--this is neither an off-shoot given the long history of organizing around Franklin School and there's no such thing as an Occupy DC movement. It's not a brand name.

    That said, the info about the asbestos is a fairly funny and ironic revelation that I wasn't aware of.

    @Dave: Franklin was a good place to Occupy because it was located in a strategic spot. It's near the McPherson occupation and if a long-term occupation had happened, it would have been crazy convenient.

  • Skipper

    First rule about Occupy DC Club: Don't talk about Occupy DC Club b/c it makes everyone realize how vapid it is.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    I think a boutique hotel is the perfect use for such a grand old building, quirks and all. It WOULD preserve public access - anyone can walk into a hotel lobby at any time, and check out the public spaces. I regularly enter hotels just to check out the architecture, lobby, etc. I do agree that the District has sat on this valuable property for far too long, instead of turning it over to a private developer, and getting it back on the tax roll.

  • drr

    @ Legba Carrefour, "Some of the people involved were never part of the McPherson occupation"...and some were, so Lydia's comment is perfectly accurate. Not sure what you're trying to correct when you only confirmed it.

    "there's no such thing as an Occupy DC movement"...hmmm...you might want to get rid of that big sign that says "Occupy DC" at McPherson Park. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/25/occupy-dc-mcpherson-square-resod-grass_n_1030422.html

    Glad to hear you think the added risk of mesothelioma is a "fairly funny and ironic revelation". Enjoy Occupy Sibley or Occupy GW Hospital.

  • Hillman


    It appears that you value the ability to look at pretty architectural detail over actually providing services for the homeless.

    Franklin School is in dreadful shape inside, and is very ill-suited for housing the homeless.

    However, it's unusually attractive to developers, because of it's stunning architectural detail and fantastic location on some of the most expensive real estate in the nation.

    If pretty architecture and a trendy address in ridiculously overpriced real estate is what's really important to you, then by all means push for the Franklin School.

    Or, you could accept the fact that the city could build four or five homeless centers with the funds they'd get from selling the Franklin School, particularly once you factor in the 14% hotel tax the city would get for decades, the jobs created, the liquor sold in the hotel bar (heavily taxed), etc.

    So which is it? A fancy 'keep the homeless visible downtown' location with pretty architecture, or actual services in a cheaper part of town?

  • Mister Goat

    Matt Yglesias' post was a whopping two paragraphs with no history on the subject, so I'd be hard pressed to say that he really "addressed" anything. He took it as a given that the building could indeed be developed as a boutique hotel and that it would bring in enough revenue to fund homeless services.

    Those are both HUGE assumptions that ignore factors like the history of the building, the number of other "boutique hotel" projects being bandied about (Old Post Office, anyone?), and the city's tendency to give tax breaks and other giveaways to any and all developers, thereby diluting or losing promised tax revenues.

    I like a lot of Matt's work, but this felt like a cut-and-paste job he dashed off in ten minutes. I'm surprised to see it referred to here as if it were somehow a definitive analysis. It wasn't.

  • Mister Goat

    Lydia, is there a link to the 2008 building assessment? Was it released to the public? If the hazards of the building were really so great as to expose anyone in the building to danger (as opposed to many asbestos situations, where it's a hazard only if disturbed), then I think that there are much bigger issues here than to dismiss the protesters from Saturday.

  • hillman


    Hotels add a 14.5 percent tax on every single room. And the liquor tax is quite high as well.

    Those are assessed to the patrons, not the owners.

    Very doubtful that the city would give those up.

  • hillman

    As for other boutique hotels, the Old Post Office would have a totally different feel... A huge hotel vs a quite small Franklin School experience.... and be in a different part of town. A few blocks make quite a difference in the hotel world.