Learning From the Pandemic Response: Converting Hotels to Shelter or Housing
As the COVID-19 virus spread in the United States in early 2020, governments took extraordinary measures to try and curtail the pathogen’s spread, imposing lockdowns, restricting travel, and recommending social distancing. These factors emptied hotels of travelers, which prompted some jurisdictions to shelter or house individuals experiencing homelessness in the newly available rooms. Such efforts in California, Vermont, the city of Seattle, and elsewhere represent an attempt to protect a vulnerable population at a time when staying home was an especially important part of staying healthy. During a virtual conference held March 8 to 10, the National Alliance to End Homelessness hosted a panel discussion examining the advantages and disadvantages of using hotels as shelter or housing during the pandemic and whether hotel conversions might represent a worthwhile strategy even after the public health emergency ends. Mary Tingerthal, president of the Tingerthal Group, introduced the panelists: Lourdes Castro Ramirez, agency secretary for the state of California’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency; Naomi See, developer at the Low Income Housing Institute; and Gus Seelig, executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
Hotels as Emergency Shelter
Castro Ramirez discussed California’s Project Roomkey, an initiative launched in March 2020 to provide temporary hotel-based shelter augmented with medical and social services for people experiencing homelessness who were also at high risk of contracting a severe COVID-19 infection due to age or underlying health conditions. The need for this emergency housing was clear: before the pandemic, 30 percent of California residents experiencing homelessness were chronically homeless, and 72 percent were unsheltered. See noted the efficacy of Project Roomkey’s approach, citing data from King County, Washington, that shows fewer COVID-19 infections, fewer emergency calls from residents, and increased exits to permanent housing among those sheltered at hotels compared with those living in congregate settings. Quickly ramping up shelter capacity by using built but unoccupied structures was also necessary to aid social distancing by relieving pressure on existing shelter space. Project Roomkey represented a coordinated, interagency, statewide effort and made use of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coronavirus Relief Fund (part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of 2020), and other state and local funding. Project Roomkey repurposed 23,000 hotel or motel rooms in California as temporary shelter and served 35,000 people. In Seattle, city, county, and state funds likewise supported shelter stays in hotels.
Hotels as Housing
The next question, says See, is whether hotels could also be used as permanent housing. Seelig discussed Vermont’s experience with permanent hotel conversions and pointed to several factors important for ensuring equitable program success. One factor is the need for geographic equity — to ensure that the needs of both urban and rural areas are met. Seelig points out that, as a largely rural state, Vermont has many smaller areas that lack significant capacity to develop affordable housing on their own and instead rely on nonprofit partners. Hotel conversion programs, which the state already had been pursuing as an affordable housing development strategy, bypass this deficit by relying on already built structures. The conversion of hotel rooms to permanent housing is easiest, says Seelig, when the hotel rooms were suites with kitchen facilities. The $33 million the state received from the Coronavirus Relief Fund for its emergency efforts to provide permanent housing, combined with the need to reduce density inside shelters, pushed Vermont to expand its conversion efforts. One lesson Vermont has learned, says Seelig, is the importance of ensuring that converted hotels or motels include features that build community among residents rather than promote social isolation.
California is also exploring the long-term potential of converting hotels to quickly expand the supply of permanent affordable housing. Building on the success of Project Roomkey, which focused only on emergency shelter, California established Homekey in July 2020 to acquire hotels, motels, or residential care facilities and convert them into permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness. During this pilot program, California spent $846 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the California General Fund, and contributions from philanthropic partners to create 6,029 new units of permanent housing during the 6 months of the program. The average cost per unit created was $147,000, substantially less than the $425,000 it cost to produce an average affordable unit in a 100-unit project in California in 2016. In Vermont, the per-unit cost of a conversion is similar, at $150,000.
As the pandemic recedes, important lessons are being learned about jurisdictions’ ability to create affordable housing and about strategies for sheltering and housing people experiencing homelessness. As See and Castro Ramirez point out, the sudden need for enhanced coordination helped make the hotel strategy viable, and jurisdictions can take steps now to ensure a better institutional, organizational, and regulatory environment for this and other innovative approaches to shelter and housing.