Simple idea to turn more empty federal buildings into homeless shelters

It may not seem like a sexy issue, but vacant federal property is often the target of ire from lawmakers and pundits. That’s why news headlines like this pop up year after year: “Government’s Empty Buildings Are Costing Taxpayers Billions.”

It’s true that the federal government has many unused buildings in its inventory, which the Obama Administration has been working to catalog, streamline, and sell off when appropriate.

What else could the empty properties be used for? Housing for homeless people, for one thing. 

It’s a great idea—which is why homeless service groups already have a right of first refusal to vacant federal property under Title V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. This provision often gets the blame for slowing the federal building sell-off process, but advocates warn the solution isn’t to gut a program designed to combat homelessness. The solution is to solve the reasons for the bottleneck. 

Specifically, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2014 (excerpted at the bottom) that the process for the nonprofit groups and charities to identify and request an available federal building is burdensome, unhelpful, and hard to use. For an illustration, check out this example of a notice posted in the Federal Register.

So here’s an idea: why not have the federal government partner up with Google or another technology company to provide a user-friendly public database of vacant federal properties, complete with crowdsourcing capability, alerts, maps, and other data sets that meet the needs of both federal agencies and homeless service providers?

For background information, see the GAO’s “More Useful Information to Providers Could Improve the Homeless Assistance Program”:

Of the 11 homeless assistance providers we interviewed, the eight case study providers that acquired property cited benefits from the Title V homeless assistance program, such as expanding services and obtaining real property at no cost. These benefits notwithstanding, the providers identified challenges, such as identifying available properties. These findings are consistent with reports from national homeless advocacy organizations. HUD reports properties in the Federal Register multiple times a year as required. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), which plays a coordination role, provides a link on its website to the HUD reports. Nonetheless, according to national homeless advocates, many homeless assistance providers remain unaware of the availability of properties because the Federal Register is not user-friendly. Further, HUD lists many of the same properties more than once in the Federal Register , as required, even though they may not be useful to homeless assistance providers. In the past, some in Congress and the executive branch have raised issues about reporting requirements; the basic issue has been that some requirements result in reports that may be burdensome to produce, or not very useful. Modifying reporting requirements to reduce the frequency of reporting related to properties that are less likely to be useful to homeless providers could help, while also allowing HUD to continue to fulfill its responsibilities.

Resources are also available at: “This Land Is Your Land: How Surplus Federal Property Can Prevent and End Homelessness,” National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty; “Homeless Assistance: Federal Surplus Property to Address Homelessness,” National Low Income Housing Coalition.