Los Angeles is seriously considering requiring hotels to open vacant rooms to homeless

Aug 29 2022, 8:07 pm

West Coast cities in both the United States and Canada are facing escalating homelessness and mental health and opioid crises, exacerbated by the pandemic’s earlier impacts.

A novel but highly controversial idea that is being seriously considered by the City of Los Angeles would mandate all hotels within the jurisdiction to open up vacant hotel rooms to house the homeless on a nightly basis. This would apply to all hotels — everything from one- and two-star motels to five-star properties.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles City Council punted the final decision on the “Los Angeles Responsible Hotel Ordinance” to March 2024, when residents in the city will vote in a referendum question added to their civic election ballot.

If approved, hotels would have to report to the municipal government by 2 pm daily on the number of vacant rooms they have for the night. All nightly stay costs would be fully covered by the municipal government at market rate, and hotels would accept vouchers to stay in the vacant rooms.

Hotel operators would also be required to provide monthly reporting to the City on the number of rooms occupied and unoccupied, and the total number of rooms available for guests on each date during the preceding month.

In addition, the ordinance would establish more stringent permitting regulations on the development of major new hotel properties, defined as projects with 100 or more rooms. Social and community impacts would be considered prior to permitting, and new hotel developments that replace housing would be required to replace the units on a one-for-one basis.

The ordinance suggests such policies are in response to the ongoing major hotel building boom that began prior to the pandemic. Over 12,000 hotel rooms opened in California in 2021, including 21 hotels with more than 3,200 rooms within Los Angeles County — the most of any county.

“The City of Los Angeles has seen a massive increase in new hotel development in recent years at the same time as the number of people experiencing homelessness has skyrocketed and the City’s affordable-housing crisis has grown,” reads the ordinance by the City.

“Hotels are frequently proposed for land that is equally suitable for housing development and thus crowd out sites that could be used to help alleviate the City’s need for affordable housing.”

It was estimated in early 2020 there were over 66,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, including more than 41,000 within the City of Los Angeles.

Across the entire county, there are also over 100,000 hotel rooms, supporting one of the region’s largest industries and employers: tourism and hospitality.

While the union, United Here Local 101, representing hotel workers in Los Angeles strongly supports the plan to turn vacant rooms into housing for the homeless, and in fact was the lead proponent for such a policy, the hotel and tourism industry has been stern in its opposition.

Hotels and their hospitality workers are not equipped and trained to double as homeless shelters, supportive, and social housing buildings. Their employees are not social and mental health workers, according to the Hotel Association of Los Angeles.

There are real concerns over the safety of hotel staff and guests, especially with smaller hotels owned and operated by small business owners who have fewer resources to make such a program safe and successful.

Other concerns relate to the risk of theft and property damage — graffiti, fire, water damage, and equipment and furniture damage — from those who are particularly hard to house, especially since such a program does not intend to segmentalize those eligible for receiving a free hotel night stay.

The mandatory program would fundamentally change how hotels operate, potentially impacting tourism and affecting the ability to insure a property — and effectively the ability to operate.

“It baffles me that Unite Here, which claims to protect its members, is leading this measure that would very likely jeopardize worker safety,” said Heather Rozman, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of Los Angeles.

“We’re relieved that the council saw this for the political stunt that it is and call on them to instead pursue long-term solutions to homelessness that actually work.”

According to BNN Bloomberg, Los Angeles also has plans to spend up to US$3 billion over five years to house about 60% of the homeless across the city, creating at least 14,000 units of housing, which can be provided as shelters.

This month, local media reported the municipal government is in the process of securing a master lease to convert downtown Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel into permanent supportive housing.

This hotel property, near Skid Row, has had a troubled past, but it gained a heightened level of notoriety from 2021’s controversial Netflix documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, which examined the 2013 death of 21-year-old University of British Columbia student Elisa Lam. Her body was discovered in a large water tank on the rooftop of the hotel weeks later after her reported disappearance.

Both American and Canadian cities experiencing a homelessness crisis also resorted to using vacant hotel rooms as temporary accommodations during the peak of the pandemic. In some cases, hotels were acquired by governments for continued use as shelters and supportive housing for not only the need but also because of the poor condition of the properties following the months-long tenancy.

Over the last two years, Vancouver saw at least nine hotel closures totalling 620 rooms — mostly in the one-, two-, and three-star accommodations categories — as a direct result of the federal, provincial, and municipal governments acquiring the properties for their pandemic homelessness strategy. Some of these properties were originally under short-term leases before governments made a decision to buy the buildings.

Unlike Los Angeles, Vancouver is facing an immense hotel room shortage, which is putting at risk the long-term viability and competitiveness of its job- and business-supporting tourism industry.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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