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FEMA Offers an Opportunity for Hotels as Homeless Housing. Will the City Seize It?

Federal dollars are available from FEMA to reimburse homeless housing projects, including hotel conversions, but logistical and political hurdles remain.

Representatives of the “FEMA Clearing House” attempt to present a check to LA City Council President Nury Martinez (PHOTO: Anthony Orendorff, @aodream on Instagram)

On Monday morning, a small group approached Council President Nury Martinez’s home with balloons, flowers, and a giant check from the “FEMA Clearing House.”

Elizabeth Chou of the LA Daily News captured the event well:

The man, activist Devon Manney of Ktown for All, was in character. He portrayed the breathless announcer, and with him were other activists, dressed in sequined dresses and holding balloons. Though the demonstration struck a lighthearted tone, the groups said they were urging Martinez to take up a motion on a serious matter — the need to quickly address the continued struggles of tens of thousands of Angelenos who are experiencing homelessness. They could benefit from taking advantage of a federal funding program that would shelter many of them in hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those present on Monday expressed frustration that a full month had passed since the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) had made federal reimbursements available for non-congregate homeless housing. As opposed to shelters, which generally place residents in close quarters, non-congregate settings allow additional privacy. The need for non-congregate units is exacerbated by the pandemic. As the LA Times wrote, COVID-19 cases have “overwhelmed” local congregate shelters.

This action came nearly a year into activists’ pandemic-driven calls for the city to “#SeizeTheHotels,” and approximately two weeks after the city council’s Homelessness & Poverty Committee approved a motion from Councilmembers Mike Bonin and Nithya Raman to identify strategies to implement the program. As of Monday, there was no indication from the Council President’s office as to when the motion would be scheduled for the full council.

In a statement to Knock on Monday, Bonin echoed activists’ concerns about the pace of progress: “For years, City officials have said — accurately — that we need significant assistance from the federal government to address homelessness,” said Bonin. “An offer of that assistance has been on the table for a month now, and the clock is ticking and people are dying on our streets. The City cannot claim to have a serious commitment to solving our homelessness crisis if it fails to take aggressive advantage of this offer.”

After a short presentation on the sidewalk, activists left, just as several police cars and an LAPD helicopter were arriving at the scene to respond to the threat of bouquets and foam board.

Theo Henderson, right, of the We The Unhoused podcast speaks at the check presentation (Credit: Anthony Orendorff, @aodream on Instagram)

But as all of this was happening in the Valley, council offices were scrambling to roll out a plan. While Council offices can often be slow to move on homeless housing projects, the lure of reimbursement from the federal government makes this a very different proposition. In the words of Devon Manney, who led Monday’s check presentation, “it’s free money.” And for councilmembers focused on the city’s budget, that makes a huge difference.

This response would surface publicly on Wednesday, in an open letter from seven council offices addressed to state legislators representing the city. The letter, signed by Councilmembers Bonin, Raman, Martinez, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Paul Koretz, Paul Krekorian, and Monica Rodriguez, outlines the opportunity presented by the inflow of federal dollars, as well as the challenges to funding projects up-front:

“This is an opportunity Los Angeles must seize, and we need the help of Sacramento to make it happen. Due to the impacts of the COVID recession on the Los Angeles economy, the city of Los Angeles is facing a $750 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year… The City of Los Angeles does not have the cash flow to take advantage of this opportunity. We need Sacramento’s help with funding in the short term.”

Councilmember Nithya Raman’s office believes the money from FEMA offers a chance to pursue both interim and permanent units, options that are often seen as tradeoffs.

“LA could immediately expand its share of room rentals while simultaneously pursuing a medium-term strategy of purchasing and converting motels into permanent housing once it receives reimbursement from the federal government,” Raman’s office said, in a statement to Knock. “It’s a rare moment where we aren’t forced to make the difficult decision between the urgency of providing immediate shelter and the necessity of creating more permanent housing solutions.”

Dr. Ananya Roy, Director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, questioned the city’s claim that fiscal issues were driving the delay.

“Does this mean that the City of LA has a plan in place to acquire a significant number of hotels and at a fast pace?” asked Roy. “If the answer to the first question is a no, then I would interpret the request as more procrastination and an effort to shift the locus of responsibility to the state. Is this funding request a performance of goodwill or is there actually a plan that needs funding?”

Several open questions remain as city leaders attempt to move forward with this process. The request for funding aimed at the state will require a response, and it’s yet to be seen whether state leaders will meet the challenge with the scale and urgency that it requires. A motion submitted on Wednesday by Councilmembers Krekorian and Martinez raises another question: while the City Attorney’s office earlier this month clarified their view that Mayor Eric Garcetti has the emergency authority to seize hotels, it’s unclear whether FEMA reimbursements would cover hotels commandeered involuntarily.

For Los Angeles to seize this rare opportunity, city, state, and federal officials will need to coordinate and cooperate in order to make it happen. As the number of unhoused people dying each day continues to grow, and the county predicts that homelessness will nearly double over the next four years, it’s up to elected officials to provide the urgency and scale needed to address our ever-growing crisis.

Disclosure: Several of the activists who were involved in the check-delivering action this article describes are Ktown For All organizers. The author of this article is a co-founder of Ktown for All.