Los Angeles County needs to get almost 60,000 people experiencing homelessness off the streets, but building new shelters is expensive and typically met with community opposition.
There is another way to accommodate people as they transition to a permanent home, however: motels. County caseworkers typically offer homeless individuals vouchers for rooms on a case-by-case basis, however, and that piecemeal policy gets expensive.
“The high price of motel vouchers is due, in part, to the county’s … purchasing policy, whereby community-based organizations approach motel operators and ask to purchase vacant rooms at the motel,” said Janice Hahn, chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors.
Earlier this year, Hahn experimented with a different model. When the California Department of Transportation ordered homeless individuals to leave an encampment in Whittier, she leased dozens of rooms from a local motel to temporarily house the encampment’s residents as caseworkers assisted them in finding long-term housing. Rather than renting vacant rooms, she secured a master lease agreement with the motel.
The Board of Supervisors approved Hahn’s motion Tuesday to explore making that model the new standard across the county. Over the next month, the county will identify at least one motel in each of the county’s eight regions that could enter into master lease agreements to shelter homeless individuals. It will also consider allowing people living in their vehicles to park in the parking lots of the motels.
While people stay in the motels or the parking lots, caseworkers would work closely with them to find permanent housing, according to the motion.
“By leasing motel rooms in bulk across the county we can quickly increase the number of interim housing units that we can offer to people as a comfortable, safe alternative to encampments,” Hahn said.
If the county does begin master leasing motel rooms, it would relieve some of the pressure on Santa Monica to provide interim housing, said Alisa Orduña, the city’s senior advisor on homelessness. Local street outreach teams could refer someone who came to Santa Monica from elsewhere in the county to a motel near their former home, she said.
The model Hahn has proposed would be much cheaper and easier than building homeless shelters from scratch, Orduña said. The county would need to make minor renovations to the motel rooms, including making first-floor units accessible for people with disabilities, but it wouldn’t need to build the major systems — electricity, plumbing, heating — that a new shelter would require.
“In theory, it’s a quick turnaround,” she said.
Orduña said motels tend to prefer master leasing agreements rather than renting rooms to homeless individuals on a case-by-case basis. The county would mostly partner with small, family-owned motels, which would get a consistent cash flow for a set number of years. The county would be accountable to resolve any issues, such as loitering, she said.
Converting motel rooms may not be met with the community opposition that has surrounded plans to build new homeless shelters in Los Angeles County, said Gary Painter, director of the University of California’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute.
“There’s a big difference if there isn’t a single site built from scratch that people can organize around,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that kind of negative reaction because neighborhoods won’t know who the residents are in any particular motel.”
Painter cautioned against treating motels as a permanent solution to the homelessness crisis, however.
“It doesn’t solve the underlying problem of there not being enough affordable housing units to go around,” he said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story ran with an image of the Ocean Lodge Hotel to illustrate a motel as mentioned in the story. The Ocean Lodge Hotel has no intention of participating in the LA County master leasing program.