Why turning motels into accommodations could survive the pandemic

In the spring of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic exploded, Missoula, Montana made the decision to purchase the Sleepy Inn, an 80-year-old downtown motel.

His aim was twofold. In the short term, the city would use the property to provide private living space for people experiencing homelessness, reducing overcrowding at existing shelters. The motel would also provide a place where people infected with Covid-19 could go to self-isolate. In the long term, the city planned to redevelop the property into permanent apartments to help alleviate its shortage of affordable housing.

Officials estimated the emergency phase could last a few months at most, said Eran Pehan, the city’s director of community planning, development and innovation. But over the past two years, more than 600 people have stayed at the site, for as little as one night and for as long as four months, Pehan said. The motel was used to house people such as the chronically homeless, refugees and students who had nowhere to quarantine.

“The pandemic has thwarted us all and it’s still very full as a non-collective shelter,” Pehan said.

When the public health crisis finally ends, Missoula will have options on how to use the property for its housing needs. “It was a great example for us to make a deeper investment and take a riskier decision, both politically and financially, and reap the rewards on down the line,” Pehan said.

Other cities are in a similar situation. The use of hotels and motels for emergency accommodation was one of the first states and local governments to adapt to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It provided safe places to stay for people experiencing homelessness and housing instability, and it gave hotel and motel owners a revenue stream. as tourism and other travel plummeted. Studies have suggested that these programs have helped slow the spread of the virus in some places.

Now, on the cusp of the third year of the coronavirus outbreak, strategies are changing. Some states seem more willing than others to make the programs permanent. But, to some degree, it looks like hotel and motel housing initiatives will survive the pandemic and become part of the arsenal that cities and states have as they battle housing shortages and attempt to help homeless people.

For example, Oregon’s turnkey project spent $65 million acquiring hotels and motels, with a particular focus on counties that were hardest hit by wildfires in 2020. King County, Washington, home to Seattle, acquired eight properties, including motels, with hundreds of units. through its Health Through Housing initiative.

The state of Vermont has worked with housing providers to produce 247 permanent housing units, some in hotels and motels, by the end of 2020, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

And some cities, like Austin, Texas, were already buying up motels even before the pandemic started.

New York City, by contrast, has used a range of hotel properties to temporarily house people during the pandemic, but in recent months has more or less abandoned that approach and converted no hotels to permanent accommodation, according to a New York Times report.

Major initiatives in California

With a severe and long-lasting housing crisis in the state, California has made perhaps the most significant investments, with two initiatives: Project Roomkey and Project Homekey. These programs have directed billions of state and federal money toward temporary and long-term housing initiatives, including funds to help cities and counties rent or acquire motels and hotels.

The Roomkey project focuses on transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness, while the Homekey project was designed to create permanent affordable housing. Both programs were administered by cities and counties. At its peak in Los Angeles County, there were 33 Project Roomkey sites, according to Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Currently, the department has eight.

Although the program hasn’t brought as many people into permanent housing as officials had originally hoped, Marston said it’s still been a successful solution for many people who previously lived on the streets.

About 35% of people who stayed at Project Roomkey locations in Los Angeles — some 4,000 — found permanent housing afterwards, either with a housing voucher or another type of supportive housing, a Marston said. That’s a much better rate of permanent housing placement than for people living in shelters, she added.

The program was particularly effective because it was “mutually beneficial” for county service providers, hotel and motel operators and homeless people, Marston noted. “It reinforced what we already knew, which is that when you have resources to get people into dignified housing, they’re eager to get into it,” she said.

Homekey project sites are still being established in the county, including a proposed purchase of an apartment complex under construction. Marston said most Homekey sites are currently being used as temporary housing sites as service providers finalize plans to redevelop them into permanent housing.

A county-funded plan in Minnesota

Since the start of the pandemic, Hennepin County, Minnesota, home to Minneapolis, has purchased four new properties to operate as non-congregate emergency shelters, including three hotels and motels and a former residential death treatment center. substance addiction.

Over time, the county is converting the properties, which are all in Minneapolis, to single-occupancy facilities. The properties have shared bathrooms on each floor and shared kitchens, said Julia Welle Ayres, director of housing development and county finance. The county used its own funds, as opposed to federal dollars, to buy the properties and plans to rent rooms for about $400 a month to people who used its shelters.

The county’s approach avoids some of the strict income qualification rules that come with federal funding, like low-income housing tax credits, and helps provide a level of affordable housing that doesn’t exist in the market. free. Many people in local emergency shelters cannot afford market-rate rents but can afford to pay $400 a month, Ayres said.

Neighborhood backlash

As is often the case with many types of affordable housing proposals, jurisdictions have faced backlash from nearby neighbors regarding proposals to convert hotels into low-income housing. Officials have faced some “NIMBY” pushback in King County and Austin, for example.

Ayres said Hennepin County moved so quickly to acquire the properties that there was not the typical level of community engagement. Since the acquisitions, neighbors surrounding one of the properties have complained of an increase in crime. After the county investigated, however, it determined the increase was unrelated to the shelter.

“I think there’s a natural tendency to think that our increase in crime comes from our low-income neighbors – that’s what NIMBYism is – but we were happy to report that it wasn’t. us,” Ayres said.

In another case, neighbors hailed the county’s takeover of a once run-down motel that was routinely used for prostitution. Overall, Ayres said, Hennepin County could emerge from the pandemic in a “much stronger place” on housing and homelessness than before.

Unclear outlook for Missoula Motel

In Missoula, Montana, plans for the Sleepy Inn are still underway, Pehan said. Since the start of the pandemic, a 200-unit low-income housing tax credit property has been completed across from the motel, and another 200-unit affordable housing property is also under construction at proximity.

The city recouped its original investment in the motel with Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars, Pehan said, and now plans to redevelop the property for affordable housing when the pandemic subsides or sell it to a private promoter.

Missoula officials held meetings about the future of the property with members of the community. Some want to see the motel fitted out for social housing. Others disagree and say there is already a disproportionate amount of low-income housing in the neighborhood.

If the city does not redevelop the site, it will still be required by law to invest the proceeds of any sale in affordable housing, Pehan said. So the purchase will pay dividends to housing programs no matter what.