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Why hotel rooms for L.A.'s homeless sit empty

Episode Summary

The historic Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles reopened in 2021 with a commitment to make it easy for unhoused people to stay there. So why are so few doing so?

Episode Notes

The historic Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles reopened in 2021 with a commitment to make it easy for low-income and unhoused people to occupy its rooms. So why have so few people taken advantage of this offer?

Today, we examine why this well-intentioned and funded solution to L.A.'s homelessness crisis is having trouble fulfilling its original vision. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Fast Break reporter Jaimie Ding

More reading:

A year after opening 600 rooms to L.A.’s unhoused, the Cecil Hotel is still mostly empty. Here’s why

LA Times Today: A year after opening 600 rooms to L.A.’s unhoused, the Cecil Hotel is still mostly empty

Once a den of prostitution and drugs, the Cecil Hotel in downtown L.A. is set to undergo a $100-million renovation

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: More than 40,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles right now. And yet right next to skid row, the city's historical epicenter for homelessness, hundreds of rooms sit empty.

Brian Lane: Literally there'll be people like sleeping outside on the street while you've got a completely vacant, brand-new building.

Gustavo: The building’s name is the Cecil Hotel. 

But even though the Cecil was redeveloped specifically as a place to house low-income and houseless folks, it's still struggling to fill rooms – even as L.A.'s homeless population grows.

I'm Gustavo Arellano, you're listening to The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.

It’s Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

Today: What the Cecil Hotel’s struggles to fill empty rooms tells us about the crucial role SROs play in getting unhoused people off the street. 

Jaimie Ding is a business reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Jaimie, welcome to The Times.

Jaimie: Thanks for having me.

Gustavo: So if people know about the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles at all, it's probably because of its more sordid history. And that’s mostly because of a Netflix documentary about the disappearance of a young woman there last decade. But what's the building's full history outside of just true crime? 

Jaimie: So, the original Cecil Hotel actually opened in the 1920s as a rather fancy place, for business travelers and tourists. But that quickly changed when the Great Depression hit only a couple years later. 

Over the next few decades, we saw the hotel decline, and it developed quite a reputation for itself with a lot of gruesome murders and deaths occurring within its walls, and attracted a rougher crowd. 

The hotel has been rebranded and changed ownership over the years, but in late 2015, Simon Baron Development, a New York-based real estate developer, acquired the hotel through a 99-year ground lease.

Matthew Baron: Our initial business plan, when we first acquired the property, was really to sort of rebuild it, fix it up and turn it into essentially half apartments and half a hotel.

Jaimie: So I talked to Matthew Baron, he's the president of Baron Property Group, which owns the building. And they were working with the Skid Row Housing Trust, a local group that manages affordable housing, to make 15% of those apartments affordable. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, that kind of blew up all the financing for the project.

Matthew Baron: That obviously upended the business plan. Hotels were shutting down left and right. It basically became impossible to finance. 

Jaimie: They needed a new business plan, and figure out what to do with the building that they had in their hands.

Matthew Baron: At the time, Skid Row Housing Trust was a partner of ours. They were gonna be managing the sliver of affordable units that was gonna be in the building. They came to us and said, Hey, you know, would you guys consider doing this as a hundred percent affordable?

Jaimie: So that's 600 rooms all reserved for low-income residents.

Gustavo: So when all of this was announced, what was the reaction from folks who work with the unhoused in Los Angeles? 

Jaimie: People were pretty excited for the project. It was pretty unique. It's a model that was not used before in the L.A. area where most projects have funding for rents already in place for people who are going to live in the building. This project had a tenant-based voucher model where any homeless person who has any sort of funding or subsidy could apply to live in the building. So a lot of people saw this as, you know, a promising new model for housing the homeless in L.A.

Gustavo: What was interesting too is that downtown L.A., especially over the past 20 years, has been very gentrified. A lot of developers there are getting these older buildings and hotels and making them into lofts, into live-work spaces. But what did these developers say about why they wanted to  transform the Cecil into something specifically for low-income people?

Jaimie: Matthew Baron, the president of Baron Property Group, told me that it was sort of a combination of a business opportunity to save the building, the project that he had already invested in, as well as a way to work with a local group and help the local homeless population.

Matthew Baron: COVID really exacerbated the homelessness issue, not just in L.A. but throughout the country as a whole. And we started putting our heads together to try to figure out how we could make it work with private financing, to do a hundred percent of the building as affordable housing. There was obviously tremendous need, a tremendous demand for it. 

Jaimie: So the model that Matthew Baron came up with was these single room occupancy units would all be reserved for residents who would have part or all of their rent be paid for by a voucher from the federal government. So traditionally, those vouchers are called Section Eight vouchers, although during the pandemic, the Biden administration announced a plan to distribute thousands more emergency housing vouchers to housing authorities across the country.  

Gustavo: These single room occupancy units, or SROs, what are they exactly? 

Jaimie: So SROs are a form of housing targeted to low-income individuals. It's a single tenant renting a single room, and they're often pre-furnished, but very small. Oftentimes, like in the Cecil, there are no bathrooms or kitchens. You could imagine a college dorm situation where people have their own rooms, but shared facilities. 

Tape: So this is the communal bathroom. Um, we have one shower here, the two bathrooms. One more shower here,

Jaimie: So I visited the Cecil Hotel a couple times and spoke with Leslie Morales. She's a woman of many hats, but mainly she's the outreach coordinator for the Cecil Hotel who helps lease out the rooms and organizes events. 

Leslie Morales: Many ask, why isn't it filled? It has a reputation that many may not wanna be here, but once they get here and they have a door to close, even if they have to share a bathroom or a shower, they have their own privacy. They don't have a roommate and they have a key to lock when they leave. There's a door to lock, there's a door to close to go to sleep. 

Jaimie: So the trend across the nation for a while now is that SROs are disappearing. The buildings are being bought and turned into condos, apartments, you name it. And in many cities you can't build them anymore because of building codes.

Brian Lane: When downtown started to develop further, there were a lot of market rate people coming along and they were buying up some of these things and basically taking this affordable housing stock off the market. 

Jaimie: So I talked to Brian Lane, he’s an architect in Los Angeles who’s become an advocate for affordable housing policies. And he told me about how the city of L.A. has tried to protect SROs from being redeveloped into more expensive housing.   

Brian: So the city of L.A. actually developed an ordinance around the loss of these SRO hotels, put a restriction on converting these things to solely market rate uses, cause the loss of these SROs was so great. The housing need got worse and worse and we needed more types of options for housing. And so what opened up was looking at all kinds of housing, and SROs came back into the picture. 

Jaimie: A lot of homeless advocates say they're actually a very important part of a city stock of affordable housing. And the thing about affordable housing is once you destroy it, it doesn't get replaced. Because we are not adding to the affordable housing units as quickly as we are removing them from the market.

Gustavo: So how effective has this ordinance been? How common are SROs nowadays? 

Jaimie: There are a lot of SROs in L.A. that are actually sitting empty, and some homeless advocate groups have brought attention to them recently. Some of them include the Morrison Hotel, the Hotel Clark and Embassy Hotel. They're all around downtown L.A. and could be used to house the homeless.   But there are also challenges as well. So you have all these homeless people who are living in close proximity in one building, and they have to share bathrooms and kitchens. All these people have different acuity levels, they have different needs, and they all faced their own physical and mental health struggles that can make living with others difficult. But at the end of the day, folks that work at the Cecil say it's a good solution for housing folks who can't afford to live anywhere else or can't find landlords that will accept them anywhere else.

Cecil building manager: I don't think you will say living in your car is better than living in an SRO, or you will say living in a tent with rats all over the street is better than living in an SRO.

Jaimie: And the Cecil residents that I talked to, some of them said the same thing as the Cecil staffers. 

Tenant: Cecil was a blessing. It may just be a SRO, it was very surprising to not have a room with your own bathroom still, and you're paying rent, if I can be honest. But still, it helped get over slightly some of the PTSD that you get from being in a shelter and being in that chaotic environment. You kind of had a sense of peace.  

Gustavo: More after the break. 

Gustavo: So Jaimie, your story said that only about a third of the rooms at the Cecil Hotel are filled. There's so many people who are homeless in L.A. What's taking so long to get people into those rooms at the Cecil?

Jaimie: From the get-go, the Cecil project faced a lot of issues working with the city and the various agencies that deal with homelessness and housing. It's a pretty complicated and lengthy process for getting someone into the Cecil. 

If you want to live at the Cecil, first, they have to apply to get the voucher, which is something that can take several months. Then after you have the voucher in hand, you file an application with the Cecil. The Cecil will send something called the RFTA or request for tenant approval to HACLA. That’s the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles. Then HACLA has to send someone to the Cecil to perform a unit inspection, which can take anywhere from a couple business days to a couple of weeks. And after that unit inspection, HACLA then has to send a formal rent offer, which is taking from two to five months to get that approved. 

One man named Scott, he applied to live at the Cecil in October, and he told me that he didn't hear back for weeks from HACLA. It wasn’t until the end of December that his application was finally approved.

Scott: They did the inspection two weeks ago on, um, I, I don't know the exact date, but it was on Monday, two weeks ago. 
So we're just waiting for their rent offer now. 
Exactly. Which they promised would go down last week, but it never did. So, and then I asked again, well, when do you think an offer will go down? I got no response 
Mm-hmm. . And you can't move in until the offer’s made.  

Gustavo: What did HACLA and the other folks who get people connected with vouchers say when you asked them about all those delays?

Jaimie: When I first asked them about these delays, they responded that they were not aware of any EHV holders waiting as long as five months to get their rent offers. They asked me to refer to a specific case, so I gathered some names of folks at the Cecil and I went back to them, and when I pressed them further about a resident that had applied back in December 2021, but didn't get approved until June, which, six months, that's a six-month application process. They said there had been delays due to a lot of applications submitted at the same time, as well as understaffing and high turnover at the EHV office within HACLA.

Gustavo: What about the people who have actually gone through the process and now live at the Cecil? What's been their experience?

Jaimie: When I spoke to tenants, it was a mixed bag of experiences.

Cecil resident:  I was living outside on the street. It was very bad for me. But Cecil Hotel's been really phenomenal. I've been here for about maybe 12 months now. Me and my husband, Roberto. And we really have no complaints about it. 

Cecil resident:  I feel like they opened this in a hurry without fully completing everything. I think, I guess they just wanted to open it up so people have places to stay, which is like, it's great that they're getting people off the street. But I feel like, like there's certain things that like, need to be finished.

Cecil resident: I think it's great. I think it's really nice. You know, the rooms are a little bit small and they have a sink in them. And I share a bathroom. I didn't get a bathroom. Uh, so I just have to go to the bathroom every once in a while and you know, sometimes they're a little dirty, but somebody comes to clean them all the time. Yeah.

Jaimie: Living there can, you know, be hard for folks who are relearning how to live on their own indoors for the first time in years. 

Cecil resident: Um, I don't wanna talk bad about the Cecil, you know? Cause like I say, it's, you know, a lot of people wouldn't have a place to stay, you know, if it wasn't here. Plain and simple. I mean, the stuff they put up with here, man, from, from people, man,  I mean, it's so arcane and primitive, just something that people do, man. Like you see people just out of their minds, man. Um, through mental, chemical imbalances in their brains and stuff, man. And, and the anger. It's just, it's mind blowing… 

Jaimie: Some people have built communities for themselves. 

Cecil resident: I see them as family, even though I say I try to avoid certain people,  it works like a family. You know, sometimes you don't wanna see your sister in the morning, but I'll see you in the afternoon. But I, I feel like we're all one at the end of the day.

Jaimie: They've made friends, they've found jobs, and others are struggling with some of the issues and tensions with other residents within the building. 

When we were touring the Cecil and interviewing residents before Christmas, some said that there was amenities that needed to be fixed in the lower floors, and the fire alarm suddenly would go off.

TAPE: Mm-hmm, individual– 
Yeah. Is that the fire alarm? Uh oh.

Jaimie: one resident we spoke to said that when things like this happen, it can make it hard for them to feel a sense of security in the building.

TAPE: That happens anytime of the night, day, any and like I said, you would get PTSD after a while thinking is there a fire or is there not? And then after a while you're like, well, I'm desensitized. Hopefully there's not a fire.  You have to play mind tricks with your brain here.

Jaimie: Some women have said that they feel a little less safe in the building, compared to the men. 

Woman: It just really sucks to live here. I would not recommend anyone to be living here…Outside and even inside the people are always smoking weed and they’re always drunk and so it’s not a safe area to live, especially for us girls, you know. 

Jaimie: There’s also an all-women's floor for residents that prefer that. 

One resident named Tamara Elkadii that we spoke with said that she chose to move in with her boyfriend and a group of other people that she already knew in order to have that community already established, when she moved into the Cecil.

Tamara: I live on the same floor as my boyfriend. Thankfully. Because I just feel like there's a lot of different people, like different paths. So I just feel safest that me and like me, my boyfriend and a few of my friends that we like, they kind of kept us all together on the same floor, which is good. It's safer.

Jaimie: And ultimately with living in an SRO building, there have been many disagreements that have arisen with things like the laundry room, sharing bathrooms and just the challenges with maintaining a shared living environment. 

Tamara: So I feel like people that like lived here, lived on the streets, they don't know how to live in an indoor or shared environment. Like some levels, the floors are extremely dirty, like really nasty. 

Jaimie: Most of the residents we spoke to say they're planning to move out of the Cecil after a year. They see the building as sort of a stepping stone, the first place that they can have to get back on their feet, and after that they want to move into another apartment, perhaps with a bathroom and more space.

In a testament to how tenants are enjoying their time at the Cecil, I'd heard from the building's managers that the number one source of referrals is actually from tenants themselves. After moving in, they're telling people from their shelters or their friends on the streets that Cecil is a potential place for them to live.

Gustavo: Jaimie, what's also interesting to me about the Cecil Hotel is that it's one of the few affordable housing projects in Los Angeles of this size and this, uh, purpose that's a hundred percent privately financed. If all these rooms get filled, do you see more private developers trying to build affordable housing projects like the Cecil?

Jaimie: So publicly funded projects often cost more and take longer to construct. So it is good that we have this example of a project that's privately funded and operating in this manner. We need both public and privately financed projects if we're serious about getting people housed in L.A. But I spoke with Mike Neely, a former commissioner of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, and he said what's happening with the Cecil is just another example of a broken system bogged down by bureaucracy. We have an innovative and cooperative project between the public and private sectors. All that's required is cooperation from a city agency for it to work. But unfortunately in my reporting, I haven't really seen much of that happening, and that might just be the lesson that other developers take away.

Gustavo: Finally, Jaimie, is the city stepping in at all to help get people into rooms at the Cecil? 

Jaimie: So in July, L.A. City Council members Kevin de Leon and Bob Blumenfield proposed a solution to try to fill the hotel faster, a master lease agreement with the city of Los Angeles. Under their plan, the city could foot the entire bill for a number of rooms in the building, and potentially bypassing the red tape of dealing with federal government funded vouchers as well as their own agency's bureaucracy. Outreach workers could then offer housing to the people on the streets and potentially move them in on the same day. Unfortunately with everything that's been happening with the City Council, that plan has not really moved forward since it was proposed. 

But the developers say that they are excited to work with the new mayor, Karen Bass, to figure out a plan to house people in the Cecil a lot quicker than it has been happening previously.

Gustavo: Jaimie, thank you so much for this conversation.

Jaimie: Thank you so much, Gustavo.

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of The Times: Essential News from the LA Times, Helen Li was the jefa on this episode. It was edited by Kinsee Morlan, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Kasia Broussalian.

Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers are Shani Hilton, Jazmin Aguilera and Heba Elorbany, and our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.