Project Roomkey and FEMA: How Los Angeles Can House Thousands

Hotel Evening

January 25, 2021

Big news from the Biden administration: FEMA will now cover the entire cost of LA’s non-congregate shelters through September.

This is an opportunity to safely house thousands of Angelenos through Project Roomkey.

LA can’t pass it up. 

Project Roomkey paid for unhoused people who were over 65 or had other health risks to shelter in unused hotel rooms during COVID-19. Several issues prevented it from reaching its full potential, but it still managed to move thousands of Angelenos into safety quickly. 

Officials hoped Roomkey would serve as a bridge to permanent housing -- and in some cases it has, but after peaking at 4,300 participants, the program began sunsetting in September due to budget uncertainty.

As rooms have gone offline, many have slipped back into homelessness.

FEMA’s new reimbursement policy means LA has a chance to restart Roomkey -- and we need to do it fast.

Nury Martinez and Mitch O'Farrell have been seeking a way to continue the program since October. Mike Bonin is already on board

Some might argue the pandemic is winding down, but that’s far from the case in LA.

COVID-19 outbreaks among the unhoused have soared recently, and each positive case further taxes our shelters, which must quarantine guests and halt all intakes.

While Project Roomkey had trouble finding participating hotels, uptake from unhoused individuals was very high. Over 90% of beds in LA County were filled quickly, far outpacing the rest of the state, and many qualified participants in LA were never offered a room.

One limitation on finding partner hotels was LAHSA and the County’s focus on scale -- by initially targeting places with 100+ rooms, we ruled out many eager partners. This time around, we could relax our eligibility and get more rooms online more quickly

Another advantage to restarting Project Roomkey is how it would help with vaccine distribution -- placing unhoused people in hotels allowed caseworkers to offer them consistent care, and administering two doses of a vaccine weeks apart will be infinitely easier for the same reason.

Restarting Project Roomkey also gives us the chance to make it the bridge to permanent housing it was always intended to be. Several of the motels we contracted with have been bought by the state for this purpose, through the companion program Project Homekey.

More federal and state funding will be available soon for buying hotels and motels for use as permanent housing. These conversions are proving far less expensive than building brand new units -- Project Homekey has averaged about $230,000 per unit. 

Buying up hotels and motels is also a great first step for the city in expanding its stock of social housing.

Pre-pandemic, LA hadn’t officially added new public housing since 1955. LA took this extraordinary step in response to an extraordinary crisis. But it shouldn’t end there. Housing affordability in LA is a crisis -- one that has long predated the pandemic.

After the last financial crisis, LA didn’t invest enough in newly low-cost housing. We stood by as distressed properties got snapped up by corporate financiers, who now own lots of rental units across LA at significantly increased rents.

Let’s not make that mistake again.

Let’s use all the federal and state money that’s available, and as much of our own resources, to decommodify our housing market -- converting rooms from investments into public resources for keeping people safe and healthy.

Let’s make housing in Los Angeles a human right.

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See the original Twitter thread here