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There Are More Vacant Publicly-Funded Hotel Rooms In Downtown LA Than Unhoused People On Skid Row

Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Garcetti is refusing to use his power to commandeer hotels and get people indoors during a deadly pandemic.

The JW Marriott / Ritz Carlton at LA Live received $270 million in tax breaks from LA City Council in 2005

Nothing better captures the cruelty and racism of modern Los Angeles than the fact that there are more vacant rooms in publicly-subsidized luxury hotels just within the borders of Downtown LA than there are unhoused residents of Skid Row.

At least 4,923 hotel rooms in downtown are part of luxury projects that have benefited from public money or land, while there are 3,884 “sheltered and unsheltered homeless people” within Skid Row and the adjoining neighborhood of Little Tokyo. Skid Row is 72% Black.

On average across the US, 8 in 10 hotel rooms are empty, and in Downtown LA 30% of hotels have completely shut down, meaning that the number of empty publicly-funded rooms is almost certainly higher than the number of people sleeping on the streets of Skid Row.

This maddening contradiction of empty luxury hotel rooms towering above desperate suffering on the streets below was dramatized this past weekend by the brave and symbolic occupation of the JW Marriott / Ritz Carlton at LA Live by Davon Brown, who was recently pushed into homelessness, and other organizers from Street Watch LA.

“I’m not leaving this hotel until Mayor Garcetti commandeers these vacant rooms,” Brown said when the occupation started.

In response, Garcetti said they had a room for Davon — this is a lie, as Davon is not eligible for the program because he’s young and healthy. The Mayor also claimed that there is not a backlog of demand for hotel rooms — this is also a lie, according to reporting in both The Daily Beast and the LA Times.

As grassroots activists from coalitions like No Vacancy CA and Peoples City Council intensify their demands for Mayor Garcetti, Governor Gavin Newsom, and other public officials to use their authority to immediately commandeer enough hotel rooms to provide housing to all of California’s estimated 150,000 unhoused people, politicians have not dared to invoke their emergency powers and risk upsetting the powerful hotel and tourism industry.

Rather, they are pushing a state program relying on voluntary cooperation from hotel owners to meet the lofty goal of getting just one-tenth of the unhoused population in hotels. Progress has been slow, with only 3% of unhoused people across the state and roughly 2.5% (about 1,500 people) of LA’s unhoused population moved into hotels thus far.

As Garcetti politely asks hotel owners to open themselves up to unhoused residents, he has also failed to mention that he himself co-owns a 21-room boutique hotel in Playa Del Rey that is currently completely empty (and has been targeted for protests).

If Garcetti ever grows a spine, here are the hotels he might want to start with:

Nearly 5,000 Luxury Hotel Rooms Supported By Public Money Or Land

The JW Marriott / Ritz Carlton Hotel at LA Live (1,001 rooms) received up to $270 million in tax breaks from LA City Council in 2005. In 2012 Marriott got another $67 million for the Courtyard / Residence Inn just across the street (393 rooms).

These deals were part of a decades-long effort to subsidize the “revitalization” of the South Park neighborhood of downtown, which started with $500 million of public money to build the Convention Center in the 1980s and $70 million more for Staples Center in the late 1990s.

The Intercontinental Hotel (900 rooms) received $250 million in tax breaks from City Council in 2016. Down the street, Hotel Indigo (350 rooms) received $19 million.

The Westin Bonaventure (left) and the Grand Hotel (right), both of which were built on land on Bunker Hill that was bought and cleared by the city using eminent domain, and then sold at below-market prices to developers.

Each of these projects received such huge amounts of money in order to close supposed “feasibility gaps” identified by consultant reports that were “paid for by developer funds,” according to the City Controller.

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel (1,358 rooms) and the Grand Hotel (487 rooms) were both built on land on Bunker Hill that was purchased by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) using eminent domain and then cleared entirely — displacing as many as 11,000 low-income residents — before being sold to corporate developers at below-market rates. In Little Tokyo, just to the east, the Doubletree Hotel (434 rooms) was built on land assembled and sold by the CRA for $1 millionin the 1970s; in 2017 it sold for $115 million.

That’s 4,923 hotel rooms just within the borders of Downtown LA that have been built with large amounts of public funds or land.

And this doesn’t include a number of hotels that have recently received tax breaks from City Council but have not yet been completed:

  • Marriott’s expansion at LA Live ($98 million)
  • Pico and Fig near LA Live ($103 mil)
  • 1155 Olive in South Park ($17 mil)
  • Cambria Hotel between South Park and the Financial District ($42 mil)
  • The Grand on Bunker Hill ($198 mil).

This also doesn’t include the W Hotel — a chain owned by Marriott — in Hollywood (305 rooms), which was built in the late 2000s on land that was purchased by the city through eminent domain and cleared of 30 small businesses.

This project, which also includes 143 luxury condos, was seen as critical to the gentrification of Hollywood at the time, and was enthusiastically backed by the councilmember who represented the area, Eric Garcetti. “Hollywood and Vine is one of the world’s most famous intersections, and now it’s making a Hollywood comeback,” Garcetti said at a celebration of the hotel’s completion in 2008. Nevermind that the Latinx population of Hollywood declined by 13,000 people from 2000 to 2010.

Let’s compare all this money and land going to luxury hotels to the funding for permanent supportive housing from Measure HHH, which has been presented as a historic effort to combat homelessness but amounts to just $1.2 billion over 10 years. Let’s also keep in mind that LAPD will receive over $1.8 billion in Mayor Garcetti’s proposed budgetfor the next year.

The status quo is no accident. It’s the result of successive generations of LA’s elites actively choosing to abandon the needs of its poor residents in favor of those of global and local investors. Those who rule Los Angeles have engaged in a deliberate strategy to put profit over (Black) lives.

And LA exists within the system of global capitalism, playing the role assigned to it under “dollar imperialism.” The corporations that own these hotels are massive multinational firms, accountable to ultra-rich global investors (and directly serving wealthy tourists). Just as some places provide cheap oil or minerals or agricultural exports, one of LA’s destinies under the international division of labor is to provide massive profits from urban land.

The people who actually live here? They’re not so important.

This isn’t at all to excuse the inaction of our local leaders. Every single day that these hotels remain empty and people die on the street, Mayor Eric Garcetti has blood on his hands.

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