Federal Reserve Building
9:17 am
Mon July 14, 2014

Why Seattle Homeless Advocates Feel Vacant Downtown Building Is Rightfully Theirs

Look past the clunky antiques that once made the now-empty building at Second and Spring a working bank — brass teller windows, secured loading docks, a two-story vault with heavy metal doors to match — and it's not difficult to dream about what the vacant property could become.

A group of advocates for the homeless did just that. The Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness drew up a nearly $18 million plan to transform what was once the Federal Reserve Bank branch as a comprehensive service center for the homeless, putting a range of services from mail to primary health care under one roof.

The advocates now face a tough fight to make their dreams a reality. Federal officials denied their application last month, but the advocates say they're not conceding any time soon, asserting the building should rightfully be theirs.

"Our application was very robust and we believe the denial of that application was improper," said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, or SKCCH.

After Denial, Seattle Public Schools Files Its Own Application

Officials at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services rejected SKCCH’s application, because the coalition didn't provide enough detail about "highly complex legal structuring or financial agreements that are contingent on circumstances outside the applicant's control,” according to the denial letter.

The department’s officials refused to comment further on their rationale, infuriating watchdogs who say the denial fits a troubling pattern of official non-compliance with laws designed to give the homeless coalition the best claim to the property.

“I think it’s very reasonable that the federal government agencies involved want to make sure that six months down the road, things don’t just fall apart. Well, so do we,” Eisinger said.

The homeless coalition is pushing back against the decision, refusing to rule out legal action against the feds. 

But SKCCH's time is running out. Seattle Public Schools officials recently submitted their own application for the building. If the U.S. Department of Education approves their application, they could turn the property into the downtown area's first elementary or middle school in decades.

What About The McKinney-Vento Act?

Central to the dispute is Title V of the McKinney-Vento Act. If federal agencies decide they can no longer make use of a vacant piece of government property, the law gives groups serving the homeless first dibs to take over the property.

Under the law, if advocates for the homeless can convince federal officials of their ability to pay for necessary building upgrades and provide a plan for keeping the building in use for at least 30 years, the deed to the property will be theirs, practically free of charge.

Though the law has given homeless advocates nationally access to around 500 buildings over the past 25 years, there are thousands more unused properties, raising questions about the government's commitment to the program for one watchdog group in particular.

"Really, the only reasonable conclusion is that the federal government is not particularly supportive of this program," said Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which has been helping SKCCH explore its options since the feds turned away their application for the Federal Reserve building.

Bauman says the government's rationale for denying the application — that the SKCCH plan's legal and financial structuring is too complex — is, at minimum, incorrect, and at worst a "pretext."

She points out if the federal government finds no suitable homeless provider to take over the building, the McKinney-Vento Act gives schools the opportunity to submit applications for the property. But if that application is denied, then the building goes to public auction.

"Our concern is that there is a motivation to sell the property as opposed to properly conveying it to a homeless service provider," Bauman said.

In March 2013, a federal judge seemed to validate Bauman's concerns. He issued an injunction against the feds to correct "troubling indications of widespread noncompliance" with the McKinney-Vento Act.

Seattle Schools: ‘We’re Not In Direct Competition With Them’

Seattle Public Schools' application now goes to the U.S. Department of Education for review, even as Eisinger says her partners will mount a public and political campaign to have their application reconsidered. District assistant superintendent Flip Herndon says if the homeless advocates get another chance, they still have first rights to the property.

"The only reason we're applying is because their application was rejected. We're not in direct competition with them," said Herndon.

The building is in what Eisinger terms "extraordinary" condition, in part because it isn't sitting unattended. A spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, which currently owns the building, says the federal government pays about $10,000 every month to maintain the building, even though no agency is interested in using it.

The spokeswoman says the building includes lead and asbestos, which would need to be removed in order for a federal agency — or a new tenant — to move in.