An Update On Project Roomkey

Building

February 15, 2021

My and Mike Bonin’s motion to shelter thousands of unhoused Angelenos in hotels through Project Roomkey took a step forward last week. 

Some obstacles remain. But we urgently need to get this done.  And it’s going to take a lot of advocacy. 

Last month, I talked about how Project Roomkey has been undergoing a slow phaseout since Sept due to budget issues, but a new announcement from the Biden administration, which promised 100% reimbursement from FEMA, has given the program a second chance at success. Because the federal government promised to reimburse cities at a later date instead of paying for Roomkey upfront, big questions concerning funding remain.

Our city is facing a major budget crisis, so even though it will get fully reimbursed, the city still has to find the money somewhere.

Last Wednesday, Mayor Garcetti announced LA would spend $75 million in emergency funds to keep Roomkey going, and add back several hundred more rooms. This is a great first step. But we can’t be talking about hundreds of rooms. We must be talking about thousands.

Project Roomkey has been vital in saving lives, and providing the consistent care people experiencing homelesseness so often lack -- but it never got close to serving the 15,000 unhoused people who, by the city’s own estimate, are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

LA County passed a motion calling on the federal government to provide us these FEMA funds upfront. This would be great, but we can’t rely on it to happen.

Closer to home, our state’s finances are healthier. Instead of big deficits, California now expects a $26 billion surplus. Normally, this money wouldn’t be spent until the next fiscal year, but that’s too late to take advantage of the federal government's offer on Project Roomkey.

Governor Newsom has called for California to advance $250 million to purchase more motels for conversion to housing as part of a partner project called Project Homekey. It’s possible some of these funds could be used for Project Roomkey as well, but it’s not clear yet.

Spending some or all of this money on Project Roomkey would make sense, because essentially we could spend it twice -- first on quickly getting people off the street and into rooms, then again on purchasing some of these motels after we get reimbursed from the feds.

Overall, however, this still isn’t enough funding for Los Angeles and the scope of its need -- and it’s unclear whether it will arrive fast enough to take advantage of the FEMA reimbursement window.

CA must recognize that the programs to use hotels and motels as shelter and housing are interlinked, and provide more up-front funding for both. If the governor doesn’t propose more upfront spending, then the legislature must act.

State assemblymembers and senators representing LA are a powerful force in Sacramento. If they work together as a caucus, they can demand that more funding for Project Roomkey and Project Homekey be included in whatever package the state advances.

If all else fails, the City Attorney of LA affirms that the Mayor’s emergency powers allow him to commandeer hotel rooms for the protection of life. These hotels are entitled to fair compensation, but it “need not be paid in advance of commandeering property.”

LA has a chance to do something big with Project Roomkey -- providing safety to thousands of people during a deadly pandemic and placing them on the path to permanent housing. 

But it’s going to take all our voices to make sure it happens.

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See the original Twitter thread here