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L.A. Hotels Refuse to Participate in Homelessness Housing Project

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At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in California, state and county officials launched Project Roomkey to place at-risk, unhoused individuals in vacant hotel rooms. But in L.A., just over 4,100 rooms have been filled out of a promised 15,000. According to a memo, part of the problem is that several hotels, including those subsidized by city funds, chose not to participate for reasons including protecting their “brand.”

Project Roomkey is a partnership between the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rent hotel rooms and provide a safe place for unhoused individuals 65 or older or with underlying health conditions to shelter and avoid infection, self-isolate or, if necessary, quarantine.

According to a report from the chief legislative analyst dated Sept. 4, a total of 4,177 rooms in 38 hotels had been secured as of Aug. 27, 2020 — less than a third of the project’s goal. The city has used part of its $19.3 million in state funding on this project but may end up not using it all.

One problem seems to be a lack of hotels willing to participate in the program. It’s not as though the rooms are otherwise full. Travel is way down due to COVID-19. The CLA’s report shows that in late June, room demand year-over-year had dropped by 60%. Hotels have instead cited other reasons for their reluctance, many of which display brazen classism.

In response, the City Council requested a list of hotels that have received financial assistance or sit on land previously owned by the city or the CRA/LA. They found 16 hotels, including the Loews Hollywood Hotel and the W Hotel in Hollywood, as well as downtown hotels, including the Intercontinental, Omni, Miyako, DoubleTree, Bonaventure and Biltmore. The City does not share the names of participating hotels for the privacy of their tenants, but we do know that these 16 hotels did not participate in Project Roomkey. This document lists each of the 16 hotels’ reasons for not participating.

In some cases, the hotel couldn’t participate because hotels that continued to serve the public, had permanent residents or that offered rooms to first responders were typically ineligible. According to the memo, the W hosted medical personnel, as did the JW Marriot, which also has full-time residents. The Bonaventure also housed first responders and remained open to the public. Negotiators chose not to approach the Intercontinental over concerns regarding its elevators; access to rooms often required the use of several and elevators aren’t exactly ideal for infection control. 

Other hotels on the list provided reasons that amounted to just not wanting Roomkey tenants there. The Omni said it would house medical staff, but “expressed concern about impact on the brand” if it participated in Project Roomkey. The Omni has vacancies. Glancing at its website, I could book a deluxe king room for tonight. And it must be hoping Angelenos book these rooms, as it’s participating in L.A. Tourism’s “staycation” program. Its deal is: “Become a tourist in your own backyard and enjoy a wonderful Staycation in the cultural epicenter of Downtown Los Angeles! Stay for $149 a night with no destination fees.”  

The Residence Inn/Courtyard Marriott was “concerned about claims of tenancy” by participants who stayed long-term. The Hotel Indigo already had guests and “was concerned about mixing their guests with Project Roomkey participants.” Someone, please tell them they are a hotel, not the “Snowpiercer train, and that people need help.

The Doubletree said its ownership had issues with the program, while the Biltmore wanted to participate, but fell off after a “company that represents a major portion” of its income threatened to pull its business if the hotel participated. Though we don’t know which company that was, the L.A. Times reports it was an airline company. Instead, the Biltmore agreed to host LAPD officers in quarantine. Meanwhile, the Sheraton and Miyako gave no reason for their lack of participation.

Meanwhile, homelessness has increased 16% in the City of Los Angeles, and 13% in the county since last year, per the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, which was completed before the pandemic reached the U.S.

As these hotel rooms sit empty, our unhoused neighbors have been forced to endure a pandemic, a heat wave and unhealthy air quality. The Times reports that over the Labor Day weekend heatwave, at least two people believed to be homeless died in L.A.

“The excuses are unacceptable during this human rights crisis,” Jed Parriott, an organizer with Street Watch L.A., told the L.A. Times.

Street Watch L.A. wants the city to seize the hotels. But according to KNOCK.LA, that could take 150 days, which is longer than if the hotel’s ownership just said yes.

Los Angeleno