Los Angeles hotels provided rooms to thousands of homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic as part of Project Roomkey, but innkeepers are feeling less than hospitable about a proposal to host the homeless on a regular basis.
Voters will decide on a union-backed ballot measure that would require hotels to offer daily any unoccupied rooms to the homeless, a plan aimed at fighting the homelessness crisis that Los Angeles hoteliers predict will devastate the industry as travelers flee outside city lines.
“The traveling public is going to say, ‘You know, I’ve got to go to LA, but I’m going to stay outside the city so I don’t have to run into an unhoused person that may become unruly,’” said Ray Patel, president of the Northeast Los Angeles Hotel Association. “It will destroy the marketability of the lodging industry in Los Angeles.”
Initiative A doesn’t go before the voters until March 5, but the campaign is already well underway as opponents raise alarm about the specter of potentially unstable homeless people mingling with business travelers, tourists and hotel employees.
A cheeky ad released last month by the Center for Union Facts shows an unkempt man with a shaggy beard panhandling in the hallway and wringing out his underwear in a hot tub as uneasy guests and hotel employees seek to avoid him.
“The union’s idea would force hotels to provide rooms to homeless, putting tourists and paying guests at risk and exposing hotel employees to hazardous situations,” says the “Hotel Hell” ad narrator. “It would be funny if it wasn’t so scary.”
Not amused was Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, who told Forbes the ad was “despicable.”
“They dehumanize people who don’t have homes, and they mock them in the video,” Mr. Petersen told ABC7 in Los Angeles.
Chip Rogers, CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, countered that “what I think is despicable is for any membership organization to craft a policy that puts their own members in physical danger.”
“To me, that’s the despicable part,” he said. “We can laugh about political ads, but I think it’s no laughing matter when we’re looking at the safety of hotel employees.”
The measure comes amid rising tensions between the booming Los Angeles hotel industry and Unite Here, California’s largest hospitality-workers union, which upended this year’s summer tourism season with rolling strikes at Southern California hotels.
“Rents have gone out of control. We want hotels to take responsibility for that,” Mr. Petersen said. “Our initiative is part of that, but also paying people a wage that allows people to live in Los Angeles is as much their responsibility as anything else.”
Last year, the union submitted more than 110,000 signatures on a petition that would place square-footage limits on housekeeping and require “panic buttons” for employees. Rather than refer it to the ballot, the Los Angeles City Council adopted the proposal in a 10-3 vote.
Two months later, Unite Here produced 126,000 signatures on behalf of the Responsible Hotels Ordinance. This time, the council opted to let the voters decide after more than 100 small hotel owners showed up at a meeting in opposition to the proposal.
Initiative A would do more than house the homeless. The measure would tack on permitting requirements for hotels with 100 or more rooms, such as factoring in market demand and whether the project would negatively impact “affordable housing, public transit, child-care, and other public services.”
In addition, hotels with 15 or more rooms that displace existing or converted housing would be required to replace them with an equivalent number of affordable housing units. The measure would apply to hotels in the city but not the county of Los Angeles.
Mr. Rogers predicted the measure would bring hotel construction in downtown Los Angeles to a screeching halt.
“The whole thing is a charade because all that’s going to happen is the hotelier developing community is just going to locate their projects outside the city limits of Los Angeles,” he said. “That part would destroy growth. I think what’s actually going to destroy the industry is this idea of putting homeless into hotels.”
The union said the proposal is modeled on Project Roomkey, a landmark state-led program that provided temporary rooms to an estimated 10,000 homeless people in 37 Los Angeles city and county hotels and motels from 2020 to 2021.
Unite Here hailed the program as “successful,” but the praise is hardly universal. The Mayfair Hotel was beset by vandalism, drug overdoses and assaults, costing the city $11.5 million in damage, according to records obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
The City Council agreed last month to buy the 294-room boutique hotel and convert it into a temporary homeless housing facility in a deal totaling $83 million.
The damage occurred even though Project Roomkey provided 24/7 staffing to support the homeless, including nurses, security and social workers. It’s unclear if any of those services would be available under the ballot proposal.
Under Initiative A, the city would hire a nonprofit organization to administer a program providing “fair market rate” hotel vouchers to homeless people. Hotels would be required to report vacancies by 2 p.m. and would be subject to $500 daily fines if they refuse the vouchers.
“We’re not saying all the unhoused will create havoc, but we saw with Project Roomkey that they need wraparound services. They need social workers on site 24 hours; they need 24-hour security,” Mr. Patel said. “We’ve said, if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to do wraparound services.”
Figures released in June by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority pegged the number of homeless in the city at 46,260, a 10% increase from the previous year, and 75,518 in Los Angeles County, a 9% rise.
The proposed initiative says that “many hotels burden City social services and exacerbate the City’s housing crisis,” but hotel owners argue that they didn’t cause the homeless problem and shouldn’t be held responsible for fixing it.
“We do have a housing crisis and a homeless crisis in LA, and it’s not being addressed by our elected officials,” said Mr. Patel, who owns the Welcome Inn in the Eagle Rock neighborhood. “To put the burden on the lodging industry is not acceptable.”