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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Agencies Ordered to Keep Property Open to Homeless

(CN) - A federal judge on Thursday upheld and strengthened a law requiring government agencies to make their unused property available to the homeless.

The Stewart B. McKinnley Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 requires government agencies to determine which of their properties are "excess," "surplus," "unutilized" or "underutilized," and then determine if any of them would be "suitable" for use by the homeless.

A year after the bill passed, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and others sued the government for alleged noncompliance. They won an injunction imposing stricter requirements than those mandated by law, and the court has since modified and updated that order, most recently in 1993.

The order now overlaps substantially with the law.

Two decades later, various government agencies asked the court to vacate the 1993 order based on "changed circumstances."

U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, D.C., denied that request Thursday and granted the plaintiffs' motion to expand the order to combat "landbanking" -- or hiding potentially eligible properties by keeping them off the books.

"Defendants' position is that landholding agencies may freely opt out of the Act and order without violating either simply by refusing to provide accurate information about potentially eligible properties when that information is solicited," Lamberth wrote.

The agencies had argued that the practice of landbanking falls under agency discretion and is thus "irrelevant to the court's task of assessing whether defendants have demonstrated compliance."

Lamberth disagreed, finding "troubling indications of widespread noncompliance."

"The 1993 order imposes reporting requirements on landholding agencies in unmistakably mandatory terms," he wrote.

He noted that the agencies themselves conceded that landbanking occurs "in significant volume," constituting a "serious violation of both the act and the 1993 order."

At the plaintiffs' urging, Lamberth ordered the defendants to annually compare the properties reported under the McKinnley Act against a database of federal properties maintained by the General Services Administration."

The judge called the database "an appropriate and useful comparator," and said an annual check would close the gulf between the properties reported and the properties actually available.

He also ordered the GSA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop a plan for new and improved training programs to ensure compliance.

In a final act of "housekeeping," Lamberth invalidated a section of the McKinnley Act that has been rendered obsolete by a 1994 law making it no longer applicable to closed military bases.

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