Mayor has power to order hotels to house homeless

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Mayor Eric Garcetti has the authority to “commandeer” hotel rooms to house the homeless and protect people’s lives during a local emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a report to the City Council. last week.

Feuer submitted the report Feb. 10 in response to a motion introduced by Councilman Mike Bonin and Councilwoman Nithya Raman on Jan. 26.

The motion asked Feuer to report on steps that could be taken for the city to commandeer hotels and motels to use as housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Los Angeles already houses people in hotel rooms through the Project Roomkey program, but hotels have to opt in and are not forced to participate.

At the time the motion was introduced last month, Project Roomkey had housed 6,150 people since it began last March to protect unhoused Angelenos from COVID-19 by placing them outside congregate shelters.

Feuer said Los Angeles Administrative Code Section 8.30 gives the mayor authority to “commandeer local private property as is needed for the protection of life and property of the people.”

The city has to provide fair market value for the property, and Feuer said that because demand for hotel and motel rooms has decreased during the pandemic, the rental value of the rooms is likely lower than historic market rates.

The city does not need to pay hotels before commandeering the property, and the hotel or motel may be afforded a post-commandeering administrative hearing to determine the appropriate amount of compensation, Feuer said.

Because of the need to act quickly during the pandemic, such an administrative hearing process would likely satisfy the constitutional requirements,” Feuer said in his report. “We recommend that the city inform, in writing, a hotel or motel owner of the city’s need to commandeer a specific number of rooms. The letter should explain to the owner that if the city and owner cannot agree to an amount of compensation, the city will proceed to take possession of the rooms and afford the owner a hearing to determine the amount of compensation on a later date.”

Bonin and Raman could not immediately be reached for comment. Some community activists and homeless advocates have been pushing the city to commandeer hotels to provide emergency shelter for the homeless amid the pandemic.

Project Roomkey began last March as state and county officials sought to find short-term shelters for homeless residents over 65 or with serious health conditions — hoping to keep them safe from the spread of the coronavirus.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed 75% of those costs under the Trump administration, but in late January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to fully reimburse the cost.

Following that announcement, Bonin and Raman called for the city to significantly expand the program to house more homeless Angelenos.

This is a tremendous opportunity to get tens of thousands of people off the streets quickly,” Bonin said at the time. “Compared to other solutions, using hotels and motels is quick and easy. We can put Project Roomkey on steroids and make a major dent in homelessness at no cost to Los Angeles. It is imperative we seize this moment.”

During Garcetti’s COVID-19 briefing Feb. 10, he said he authorized up-front funding to extend Los Angeles’ leases for Project Roomkey hotels through Sept. 30. The city began filling 300 empty rooms Feb. 11, Garcetti said. Half the rooms are being set aside for people living on Skid Row, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority will prioritize immediate placement for Black women, seniors and people living in homeless communities in Echo Park, according to Garcetti.

The county Board of Supervisors also is considering the expansion of its Project Roomkey program now that the Biden administration has increased the federal reimbursement rate to 100%.

Supervisor Janice Hahn suggested taking another look at the plan to house homeless individuals in empty motel and hotel rooms, even as California has rebranded the program to Project Homekey and focused on more permanent solutions.

Master leasing hotels and motels through Project Roomkey has been one of the most effective tools we have had to combat homelessness,” Hahn said. “If this new FEMA funding means we can expand this program, get more Project Roomkey sites up and running, and get more people off the streets, we absolutely should. This was the right thing for the Biden administration to do, and we should take full advantage of it.”