February 15, 2012; Source: Miller-McCune

Recently, homeless advocates saw the nation take a step backwards. The House of Representative passed a bill that would eliminate homeless services providers’ right of first refusal on surplus federal government property. The legislation, H.R. 1734, the Civilian Property Realignment Act, was sponsored in the House by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.). A companion Senate bill has been introduced by Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), though there has been no movement on it so far.

The landmark 1987 McKinney-Vento Act was the first comprehensive federal law on homelessness, dealing with the array of homeless programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. One of its provisions, Title V, required the federal government to offer surplus government-owned properties to homeless service providers before making them available for other uses or selling them to private buyers. Miller-McCune’s Washington correspondent, Emily Badger, ticks off the various uses of surplus federal properties for the homeless: “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.”

Although the law still stands, the federal government faces a new pressure: a galloping budget deficit. Program administrators are now thinking about every nickel and dime they might be able to get for the federal budget, including selling these properties rather than giving them to homeless service providers. When the government publishes its list of available federal properties, homeless service providers have a 60-day window to submit an application for the property and show that they will be able to use it. According to advocates, out of 14,000 properties that have been made available through Title V of the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless programs have expressed interest in only 500.

Somehow, those unused properties strike some in Congress as a lucrative potential revenue source. Are there a multitude of potential private buyers ruing their inability to bid on properties grabbed by homeless service providers? Not necessarily, says Jeremy Rosen, policy director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “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 told Miller-McCune. “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.”

Despite the bill’s sponsorship by Republicans in the House and the Senate, don’t think that this plan resides solely with the GOP. According to the Indiana Association for Community Economic Development, Denham’s bill is “loosely based” on a similar Obama administration proposal.

The bill would create a nine-member commission to review the upcoming surplus property list and make sales recommendation to the administration. Then Congress would pass a resolution approving the commission’s recommendations before surplus properties would be made available to the public.

House Democrats and nonprofit homeless agencies are not happy with the specifics of the bill or with the overall implications for the joint posture of the White House and Congress. It represents a joint White House and Congressional over-eagerness to “streamline supposedly excessive government regulation” even if it comes at the expense of our nation meeting its obligations to the poorest of the poor.—Rick Cohen