Shelter construction delays bring questions over vetting of subcontractor

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DC Council members this week grilled District officials over delays in constructing planned family homeless shelters in wards 7 and 8, while officials maintained both shelters will still open on schedule in the fall.

The two shelters are part of a replacement plan to close the maligned DC General shelter, which houses about 250 families. Five other shelters are under construction or will break ground soon, but only three are scheduled to be completed in time for DC General’s planned shutdown this fall, leaving the District to house families temporarily in motels, officials said.

Department of General Services director Greer Johnson Gillis testified Monday at a DC Council oversight hearing on shelter construction. (Screenshot from DC Council hearing)

Department of General Services director Greer Johnson Gillis said Monday at a council oversight hearing that per standard practice, her agency did not vet the subcontractor building the shelters in wards 7 and 8.

MCN Build, the firm that won the general contract to construct those homeless shelters, subcontracted the work to Z Modular, a company specializing in fabricating prebuilt modular structures. Officials acknowledged delays on the projects, first reported by Washington City Paper, but said overtime work will cover for time lost — and Gillis said the general contractor will be on the hook for the extra costs.

Z Modular has not yet completed a modular project, at-large Council member Elissa Silverman noted Monday. In response to questions from several legislators, Gillis said that they “trusted” their general contractor, despite Z Modular’s lack of experience.

“We do not vet subcontractors, nope,” Gillis replied to at-large Council member Robert White. She said general contractors are expected to hold the subcontractors accountable.

That has raised the prospect that the District agency charged with building replacement shelters for DC General is not directly overseeing the firm tasked with delivering the shelters. In an interview Tuesday, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson noted: “As a matter of law, our relationship is with the contractor, not the subcontractor.”

City Paper recently reported that Z Modular became the favored subcontractor after the company made a presentation to Department of General Services officials, even though MCN Build expressed concerns with department officials over relying on the inexperienced firm. Mendelson said he was concerned about allegations that the Department of General Services forced MCN Build to pick Z Modular as the subcontractor.

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City Paper had reported that the District initially denied knowing about delays in constructing the 35-unit family shelter in Ward 7 and the 50-unit shelter in Ward 8, revelations that sparked Monday’s joint roundtable by two DC Council committees. The District picked MCN Build as the general contractor on the twin projects.

Gillis on Monday said her department always searches for “innovative” construction solutions. Brian Butler, head of the homeless shelter division at the Department of General Services, testified to the DC Council there will be “millions of dollars” in savings as a result of using modular construction techniques.

“We worked with our general contractor, we trusted our general contractor, and we relied upon their recommendation when they brought the contractor to us,” Gillis said.

The District will press on to close DC General by the end of the year, sticking to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s original deadline. But advocates said Monday that despite poor conditions at DC General, the mega homeless shelter should not shut down until the construction of all smaller replacement shelters. Only new shelters in wards 4, 7 and 8 will be completed by the fall, city officials said Monday.

“Why don’t we just delay DC General for a few months … other than that it goes against the rhetoric of the administration?” Mendelson asked District officials during the hearing.

Continuing to use DC General would mean spending more funds on a facility suffering from water, air conditioning and electrical issues, Gillis said. Butler said that shelters in wards 3, 5 and 6 are set to be completed by fall 2019, while the Ward 1 shelter targets a spring 2020 opening. (The DC Council approved a bill Tuesday to build a 50-unit Ward 1 facility at 2500 14th St. NW on the parking lot of the Rita Bright Family and Youth Center, a consensus site selected after city officials were unable to finalize a deal for the original location. A shelter in Ward 2 is already in use.)

Gillis defended the use of motels to house families while the rest of the shelters are completed in every ward. Homelessness advocates disagreed.

“The timing of the replacement shelters coming online is critical. … DC General must close, but not until all the replacement shelters are ready,” said Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

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