In march 2020, as the effect of COVID 19 blazed through America, with greater impacts on the homeless, Gov. Gavin Newsom had commanded the natinal guardsmen, emergency responders to come up to a viable solution that will address the catastrophe COVID has poised on the homeless. This birthed the idea of the “Project Roomkey.”
The pandemic had limited travelling and hotel occupancy rates plunged. California began moving thousands of homeless people into private hotel rooms in an effort dubbed “Project Roomkey,” which would eventually provide temporary shelter to over 48,000 people in hotel rooms leased by the state.
“The pandemic provided us with a confluence of factors that allowed us to do things that a lot of us daydreamed about for years,” Elliott said. Those factors included the urgency caused by the public health emergency, relief money from the federal government and the timing of the crisis, which Elliott said coincided with rising political will to do something about out-of-control homelessness in the state. “That was kind of the magic recipe,” he said.
Within months, the state went all in on the strategy, launching an effort to convert hotel rooms into permanent housing. Between July and December 2020, the rebranded “Project Homekey“ would use $846 million — $700 million of it from federal coronavirus relief funds — to create more than 6,000 housing units, 5,000 of them permanent, in 94 properties throughout the state, mostly hotels. The average cost per unit came in at about $148,000. Normally the state spends years and about $500,000 per unit to develop new affordable housing.
David Grunwald, senior vice president for the Los Angeles region at National Community Renaissance, said he “went nuts” when he saw a request for proposals from the city of Los Angeles to turn hotels into housing for homeless people last summer. Grunwald’s team applied for, and won, contracts to develop housing at two old hotels under the first round of the program, including a 49-unit motel in the El Sereno neighborhood of LA now called Casa Luna.
He’s only grown more optimistic about the hotel conversion model since seeing it in action.
“I’ve been doing housing and homeless work since 1989, and it’s the first strategy I’ve seen that has promise to scale up in a way that makes a difference,” Grunwald said. Read more