A 2008 city law intended hotels used as primary residences to be preserved as safety-net housing. But with little enforcement, some landlords had turned their buildings into tourist hotels
By Robin Urevich, Capital & Main
LOS ANGELES, Calif.--Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass issued an order last week that allows the city to use residential hotel rooms — which by law are intended to be used as permanent housing for some of the city’s poorest residents — to temporarily shelter homeless people.
The order goes against the goals of a 2008 city law, which sought to preserve nearly 19,000 mostly bare-bones residential hotel rooms as stable housing for low-income, disabled and elderly Angelenos, who were increasingly being displaced by the development of condos and tourist hotels. If residential hotel owners want to convert their buildings into other uses, they must either replace the housing units or pay an equivalent fee to the city.
The mayor’s order comes nearly four months after a Capital & Main and ProPublica investigation found that at least 21 hotels were renting rooms to tourists and advertising on travel booking websites in apparent violation of the law. In response, the mayor’s office ordered the city’s Housing Department to investigate and account for the lapse in enforcement. Housing officials have issued citations to the owners of 17 of the hotels, ordering them to restore their rooms to residential use. All but one of the owners have appealed the order.
The order is designed to open additional rooms for the mayor’s Inside Safe initiative and other programs until their participants can be placed in permanent housing. Since the mayor declared a homelessness emergency on her first day in office in December, Inside Safe has cleared some 29 street encampments and moved more than 1,600 people into temporary shelter in more than 40 hotels and motels.
The new directive, which is in effect until the emergency ends, would significantly expand the city’s short-term shelter options, as there are roughly 300 buildings designated as residential hotels across the city. Any vacant residential hotel unit could be used to provide temporary housing under an agreement with the city.
“This executive directive continues work to help bring unhoused Angelenos inside as quickly as possible so they don’t die on our streets,” Bass spokesperson Zach Seidl wrote in a statement.
But Barbara Schultz, the director of housing justice at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, called the order “incredibly shortsighted” and “a huge step backwards.”
“Los Angeles is short tens of thousands of permanent units,” Schultz said. “As it is, we can’t move people from interim units into permanent units because of the shortfall. So how does removing permanent units help?”
Schultz said the mayor’s order could violate a 2006 lawsuit settlement that predates the residential hotel law and requires more than 65 downtown hotels to remain residential.
As of Oct. 13, Matt Szabo, the city’s chief administrative officer, reported that just 190 of 1,682 Inside Safe participants had found a permanent place to live.
Similar debates about who should get priority for limited housing and the best ways to address homelessness are playing out in large cities across the country.
Ray Patel, who heads the North East Los Angeles Hotel Owners Association, said the mayor’s order could be a “win-win” for the city and hotel owners, adding that housing Inside Safe participants would be a good option for hotels without amenities that would attract tourists. “We’ve always been a proponent of the market dictating how hotels rent,” he said.
Many residential hotel owners stand to earn more than they could from monthly rents as rates under Inside Safe have frequently exceeded $100 a night.
The city appears to be rethinking its enforcement of the residential hotel law. Under the order, the city would not deem residential hotels in violation if they rent out rooms to the city. This week, the Housing Department postponed at least two appeal hearings involving residential hotels that were offering rooms to tourists because the hotel had applied to participate in Inside Safe.
The mayor’s order also requires the Housing Department to “conduct a comprehensive review of all residential hotels” within 30 days, so that city officials can consider updates to the residential hotel ordinance.