Occupy Lead and Asbestos-Laden Buildings!
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.