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LA voters to decide whether hotels must rent vacant rooms to unhoused Angelenos

Julia Wick, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — A controversial measure that would require hotels in Los Angeles to provide vacant rooms to homeless people will go before voters in 2024, the City Council decided Friday.

The council rejected an option that would have skipped the public vote and enacted the ordinance directly, instead voting 12-0 to send the measure to the ballot. The initiative is backed by the union Unite Here Local 11, which had already gathered enough signatures to place it on the ballot.

The vote came after a lengthy and animated public comment session, with the majority of speakers opposing direct approval of the measure.

Under the proposal, hotels would be required to regularly report the number of vacant rooms they have to the city's housing department. A program run through the department would then make referrals and pay "fair market rate" for the lodging using prepaid vouchers. Hotels would be prohibited from discriminating against homeless Angelenos "for their participation in this program, or the fact or perception, that they are unhoused."

The proposal comes as city officials are gradually closing one of the signature programs set up to address the homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic: Project Roomkey, which turned multistory hotels into makeshift shelters.

The proposed program has no designated source of funding and would be contingent on funding being secured by July 1, 2023, according to a report from the city attorney's office.

Because the proposal's backers had gathered enough signatures to get the measure onto the ballot, the council had three options when it came up on Friday: adopt it into law directly, call a special election or place it on the ballot during the next regularly scheduled election. Under election timing rules, that would be the March 5, 2024, primary.

If approved, the proposal would also require new projects with more than 100 rooms or units to obtain a conditional use permit that would take the market demand for hotel and community impacts into consideration.

The proposal would add new affordable housing requirements for most new hotel developments that replace existing housing units, requiring the developments to include a corresponding number of new affordable housing units at the hotel or in the surrounding neighborhood.

Many hotel owners and operators spoke vehemently against the proposal, arguing that it would unfairly burden hotels and hurt their ability to do business.

During his public comment, Ray Patel asked all the hotel owners in the room to stand up, saying their operations would be dramatically affected if the proposal was directly approved. Patel instead urged the city to use Project Roomkey's voluntary participation as a model.

"Hotels would gladly volunteer their hotels to participate in programs as long as there's a wraparound service which includes mental health service, social service, 24-hour security and somebody's there to hold their hand and help them get into permanent housing," Patel said.

 

Several speakers also raised concerns about the lack of details regarding how the sweeping proposal would work.

"We have no economic data about what it will cost the city," Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, said, noting the lack of funding source and the fact that rates had not yet been set for hotel rooms.

"Hotels did not cause the homeless problem. Hotels are not the solution for the homeless problem," Waldman said, to loud applause in the council chamber.

Richard Earle, a representative of independent hospitality insurance brokerage PetraRisk Solutions, argued that the program would reduce hotels' ability to procure and maintain insurance.

"Insurance carriers will legitimately pull coverage," Earle said. "The business is underwritten with risks that involve guests and business travelers, not residents who bring a whole set of separate implications."

But Carly Kirchen, an organizer with Unite Here Local 11, argued that hotel operators and associations were unfairly prejudiced against unhoused Angelenos.

"The hotel operators would have you believe that every person experiencing homelessness is so sick that they are a danger to the people around them. But this myth argument misrepresents who is actually experiencing homelessness," Kirchen said, explaining that hotel workers are among those most affected by the housing crisis, with thousands of their members facing eviction.

"Even as a union member with a good-paying job I was recently homeless due to the housing crisis in our city," said Bambian Taft, who identified herself as a hotel minibar attendant and former housekeeper. Taft said she had recently paid out of pocket to stay at hotels with her daughters during a time when there was "no work for me at the hotel."

She was one of a handful of hotel workers who spoke in support of the proposal.

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©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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