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Project Roomkey is Failing in Los Angeles — Now We Know Why

A city memo confirms that negotiations with publicly-supported hotels to take in unhoused residents broke down.

Loews in Hollywood. The lighting pattern was initially a heart to “support” healthcare workers during the pandemic, but has since burned out. (Credit: Liam Fitzpatrick | KNOCK.LA)

In April 2020, California governor Gavin Newsom launched Project Roomkey, a coordinated effort between state and local governments (largely funded by FEMA), to acquire 15,000 hotel rooms statewide for unhoused residents who were especially at risk of contracting COVID-19. For context, there are over 150,000 people experiencing homelessness in California, according to a pre-pandemic estimate.

LA County’s version of Project Roomkey was even more ambitious. The Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority (LAHSA), a joint powers authority of LA City and LA County, set the goal of providing 15,000 rooms in LA County alone for vulnerable unhoused individuals (defined as people over 65 or those who suffered from chronic health conditions that would make a life-threatening case of the virus more likely).

These goals have not been met. As of late August 2020, four months later, only 4,177 rooms have been secured countywide (LA County has a homeless population of nearly 59,000 as of the latest estimate). Just 2,141 of those rooms are in the City of LA, which has an unhoused population of 36,300. In early September, Heidi Marston, Executive Director of LAHSA, confirmed via email to activists that there is limited space remaining.

With LA currently experiencing the worst air quality levels we’ve seen in 30 years, and COVID-19 still spreading in the region, it is a catastrophically bad time to be running out of indoor space. Most galling? Los Angeles has 16 publicly-funded or supported hotels, which have received significant subsidies over the past four decades. And none of the rooms Los Angeles has secured through Project Roomkey are in those hotels.

To be clear: hotels that Los Angeles has subsidized to the tune of over $1 billion are being left vacant as the city’s unhoused population languishes on the street amidst a pandemic and the state’s worst recorded fire season. So why can’t LA house its most vulnerable residents in (mostly empty) hotels that the city paid for?

Here are the reasons.

At the instruction of LA Councilmembers Mike Bonin and Marquis Harris-Dawson, the city’s Chief Legislative Analyst (CLA) put together a memo detailing why none of the publicly-supported hotels agreed to participate in Project Roomkey. KNOCK.LA received a copy of the memo, and the reasons for refusal range from technically understandable to unfathomably ghoulish.

For instance, the W Hotel was “hosting medical personnel from nearby healthcare facilities,” and thus unable to participate for fear of infecting frontline workers. Project Roomkey only committed to work with hotels that were otherwise vacant. While we were able to confirm the W offered a discounted rate to specific healthcare professionals, it also hosted a hugely busy, largely maskless pool party as recently as July 2020.

The Omni was not interested in Project Roomkey either, but they had no reasonable excuse. Instead they cited “impact on the brand” as the reason to refuse to take in human beings in imminent danger. The Hotel Indigo, Bonaventure, JW Marriot/Ritz Carlton, and the Residence Inn/Courtyard expressed concern about “mixing their guests” with people who might otherwise die of exposure without the ability to shelter in place.

Tellingly, the Residence Inn/Courtyard was also worried about “claims of tenancy by Project Roomkey participants.” It is not difficult to imagine that they accidentally said the quiet part out loud.

Project Roomkey has thus far failed to make the transformative impact for the region’s unhoused population that was promised. The Project Roomkey Tracker has been monitoring the program, and growth petered out to nothing months ago; now the program is starting to shrink well before the pandemic is actually over. City, County, and State officials seem to be unwilling to put any semblance of pressure on hotels to take in vulnerable residents.

For months, activists have called for Mayor Eric Garcetti to use his emergency powers to seize hotel rooms and protect his constituents. The response has generally been that commandeering a hotel, despite how exciting it sounds, can actually take longer than negotiating with hotel-owners — typically as long as 150 days.

As of publishing time, it has been 165 days since the launch of Project Roomkey. We were promised 15,000 hotel rooms. We have less than a third of that number.

And now, we know why. At the negotiating table, brand impact is more important than human lives.

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