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Project Roomkey

With Project Roomkey — an initiative to convert hotels into temporary housing for a virus-vulnerable segment of the homeless population — the state has simultaneously addressed the pandemic and California’s homeless problem by encouraging counties to lease up 15,000 hotel rooms. At the forefront of the project is a number of Valley-region hotels owned by Vista Investments, an El Segundo-based firm which has Vagabond Inns in Ventura and Oxnard, as well as one in Glendale and a Best Western next door to Ventura’s Vagabond Inn. All currently have homeless guests. Vista Chief Executive Les Biggins described his involvement with Project Roomkey as a “win-win” for everyone. “We were approached by the County of Ventura sometime in March,” Biggins recalled. “Their procurement office…sent out a contract – we reviewed it. … After a month in Ventura, we clearly saw how they were not only good for the community, it’s also good for us.” Biggins told the Business Journal that while the room rate offered by the county was lower than market value, the deal was hard to resist. “Under COVID, in our industry, revenue started to significantly decline,” Biggins said. With Project Roomkey, “we were doing much better,” he added. Ventura County Continuum of Care Program Manager Tara Carruth acts as the liaison between the homeless and the hotels. Her Roomkey journey began with the statewide shutdown in mid-March. “Our Office of Emergency Services through the Sheriff’s Department secured these leases,” Carruth said. “My team assisted with establishing the referral process and screening. We partner with all of the service providers.” With regards to Vista, Carruth said: “They offered us a fair lease value and obviously the motels were fairly vacant when they were taken up, at a time when tourism was significantly slowed.” Security, medical measures For hotel owners, the security of their properties is a risk that the state has largely assumed. At Motel 6 in Newbury Park – a site at 1516 Newbury Road not owned by Vista that serves homeless guests from Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Simi Valley and Moorpark – tents were set up outside the 175-room motel to process and provide medical tests for incoming occupants. To ensure security, fencing was installed around the entire motel. Vista’s Biggins said that working with Ventura County has gone smoothly. “It was a very fair agreement,” he said. “They screened the displaced, they provided the security. There were clauses at the end of the agreement that they would repair any damages. … There were frankly not a lot of issues.” In fact, Biggins noted, based on his experience with Ventura County, Vista soon-after leased out Vagabond Inns in Los Angeles, San Mateo and Sacramento for Roomkey programs in those cities’ respective counties. Biggins added that the Vagabond Inn business model puts the hotels in a good position to house people during the pandemic. The buildings are usually two or three floors with external room entrances and a minimum of enclosed spaces such as lobbies and elevators. “These (homeless) people are pre-screened. They have to obey the rules of the hotel. If, for any reason, they don’t, they will be removed,” Biggins said. Somewhat ironically, because of the vetting that goes into these homeless candidates for Roomkey, many may prove less likely to be harboring the coronavirus than the general public, Biggins added. In Ventura County to date, Carruth said, not one of the homeless people staying at the four designated motels has experienced the virus during their residency. Funding Project Roomkey relies on a section of the Federal CARES Act that authorizes spending Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, funds to protect homeless people from COVID-19. Partnering with the state, FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of motel costs while the county taps state emergency funds to offset the remaining 25 percent. L.A. County currently has 35 hotels or motels in Project Roomkey, including Vista’s Vagabond Inn at 120 W. Colorado St. in Glendale. The county has paid about $1 million a month to house homeless in these hotels. Although that funding was originally set to expire at the end of June, FEMA has extended the program through July 30. As L.A. County Homeless Initiative Director Phil Ansell explained to the Business Journal, the state — via Roomkey — has tackled three objectives at once: Protecting the lives of homeless individuals 65 or over with pre-existing conditions; supporting the “health service system by preventing an avalanche of people experiencing homelessness from flooding our hospital beds”; and “enabling hotels and motels that — in most instances would have to close their doors and lay off their staff — to function at a higher level of occupancy that they would routinely have.” However, in Ventura County, Project Roomkey is set to expire soon. “Three of the motels in West County gave us the notice in June,” Carruth said. “The Newbury Park (location) also gave us notice.” Leases for the West Ventura County motels will lapse at the end of July while the Motel 6 contract runs through August. Remnants of Project Roomkey will manifest in the future. The county is now transitioning into a FEMA-remunerated system that allows individuals to use vouchers to pay for motel rooms without the county leasing entire motels. Biggins anticipates welcoming homeless guests to his hotels through Ventura County’s voucher system. The transients housed at his locations will room alongside the more typical travelers making their summer reservations. “We do not anticipate any problems with that,” Biggins said. Roomkey to Homekey At the end of June, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the state budget for 2020-21, he announced his intent to earmark money toward Project Homekey, in which counties will purchase hotels and convert them into permanent homeless shelters. “We are very much interested in this opportunity,” L.A. County’s Ansell said. According to Tracy McAulay, management analyst with the Ventura County Community Development Department, Homekey “dovetails nicely with Project Roomkey.” “But there are a whole lot of unknowns,” she added, because the county has not yet had the chance to apply for these funds. A slice of Newsom’s $750 million designated to local governments toward the homeless will go to the conversion of motels into permanent homeless housing, but McAulay deemed it also “very early in the process” to know whether or not it will include the hotel operators of Roomkey. McAulay said that the parent company of Motel 6 “indicated they were up to selling (some of) their sites. It’s hard to know with occupancy going back up. We’ll have to see when we go forward.” However, coronavirus funds must be spent by the end of 2020, so her department will be looking into finding “a housing provider to lead that charge.” An evaluation committee will be formed to elect that partner moving forward, and Carruth said that she will be a part of that process. Also, per McAulay, while there was little NIMBY pushback on the county’s assumption of local hotels during the coronavirus emergency, area residents will be taken into account on any permanent hotel conversions. “We are working closely with cities and making sure they’re comfortable,” McAulay added. In the meantime, even with its short lifespan, Carruth said Roomkey has been an overall beneficial experience in addressing the local homeless during a time of crisis. “We had no person at Project Roomkey with COVID, so that was a success,” she said, adding that the county was able to connect some of the people staying at these hospitality sites with health services, drug treatment and, in one case, dental work. “Because they had a secure place for a significant amount of time, they could get their life on track and progress toward housing. The most important aspect is that they were protected from the virus,” she said.

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.
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