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L.A. Wants To Commandeer Vacant Hotel Rooms as Homeless Housing

To solve its worst-in-the-nation homelessness problem, Los Angeles is considering the novel and legally suspect approach of commandeering empty hotel rooms as shelter housing.

Come March, city voters will decide on a ballot initiative backed by the hotel union Unite Here requiring hotels to report their empty rooms to the city’s housing department. The homeless would then be given vouchers to rent the vacant rooms. Hotels don’t have to leave those rooms available; they just can’t refuse service to homeless customers paying with housing vouchers.

The idea has its roots in Project Roomkey, a federally funded, state-run initiative during the pandemic that moved the homeless out of superspreader congregate shelters and into empty hotels. Project Roomkey and similar programs in other states worked smoothly enough because the feds were willing to pick up the tab, few business travelers or tourists were looking for rooms, and hotel participation was voluntary.

Now that people are traveling again for business and pleasure, hotel owners are less eager to rent rooms in normally operating hotels to the homeless. They are especially not happy about being required to do so by law. They complain that the ballot initiative wouldn’t provide hotels and hotel staff any help dealing with disruptive homeless guests they’d be forced to house.

“Unite Here is fighting to fill all LA-area hotels with the same types of activities you see on Skid Row. If they succeed, they’ll jeopardize the safety of both hotel guests and workers, virtually destroy the city’s tourism industry, and cause massive job losses,” said Chip Rogers, who runs the trade group American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), in a recent statement.

Not all hotel workers like the idea either. A number testified against the proposal when the L.A. City Council was first considering it, reports theLos Angeles Times.

The Unite Here Local 11, whose members are in the middle of a two-month strike, is still vigorously pushing the plan. One of its demands is that hotel owners endorse their ballot initiative. That seems unlikely, as does passage of the ballot initiative itself. A poll conducted by the AHLA found that 86 percent of Angelenos “believe the city should not prioritize housing homeless people in hotels.”

Whether or not the ballot initiative is merely a cynical bargaining chip, it’s certainly misguided. Forcing hotels to accept homeless guests is just another game of musical chairs played with the city’s insufficient number of beds, rooms, and homes. New construction is needed. Thankfully, that can happen without worsening hotels for workers, guests, and owners.

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