LA County Considers Expanding Project Roomkey to Temporarily House Homeless People

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to consider expanding its Project Roomkey program now that President Biden’s administration has increased the federal reimbursement rate to 100%.

Supervisor Janice Hahn suggested taking another look at the plan to house homeless individuals in empty motel and hotel rooms, even as California has rebranded to Project Homekey and focused on more permanent solutions.

“Master leasing hotels and motels through Project Roomkey has been one of the most effective tools we have had to combat homelessness,” Hahn said. “If this new FEMA funding means we can expand this program, get more Project Roomkey sites up and running, and get more people off the streets, we absolutely should. This was the right thing for the Biden administration to do, and we should take full advantage of it.”

Project Roomkey was launched in March 2020 as state and county officials sought to find short-term shelters for homeless residents over 65 or with serious health conditions — hoping to keep them safe from the spread of the coronavirus.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed 75% of those costs under the Trump administration, but in late January, President Joe Biden issued an executive action to fully reimburse the cost.

The board directed county CEO Fesia Davenport and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to report back in 15 days with opportunities for extending, renewing or expanding county-contracted Project Roomkey sites, including hotels and motels with fewer than 100 rooms which had not been eligible for the program.

Supervisor Hilda Solis co-authored the motion.

“The program has served as a beacon of hope, enabling us to immediately bring some of our most vulnerable indoors to protect them from contracting COVID-19 and to set them on a path to permanent housing,” Solis said. “We must continue to use every resource to protect the health and safety of our unhoused neighbors.”

The county will also ask the administration to speed reimbursement, which has typically taken a year or more.

The board separately voted to receive and file, without comment, a long-postponed report on progress in providing more affordable housing countywide.

According to a summary of that report provided by Davenport and dated June 12, 2020, Los Angeles County needs to add an estimated 509,404 affordable homes to meet demand.

The gap between demand and supply had dropped from 2014 levels by more than 72,000 homes, which reflected both the addition of new affordable units and an overall drop in the number of very low-income renter households, according to the summary.

Even so, the small dent in the big shortfall over more than half a decade makes clear just how difficult it will be to solve the problem.

While 8,205 affordable homes were added in 2019, another 8,900 units are at risk of reverting to market rate housing when funding expires.

The CEO’s letter highlighted the costs of the pandemic, which had been underway for roughly three months at that point.

“The public health and economic crises created by COVID-19 have resulted in severe revenue loss to the county; therefore, near-term planning will be dependent upon imminent needs and available resources,” Davenport wrote. “Moving forward and looking to the longer term, the county will continue to build upon regional efforts and partnerships to address the affordable housing shortage.”

The expressed goal of the 130-plus page report is to help the board allocate resources across new and existing housing programs. An accompanying presentation from the California Housing Partnership offers detailed data on a wide range of metrics, including the rental cost burden experienced by households by race and over a range of income levels.

About 36% of Black households are “severely cost burdened,” meaning they pay more than 50% of their income for housing. That compares with 29% of white, Latino and Asian households that fall into this severely financially stretched group of households based on 2019 data.

While the numbers are dated, they seem unlikely to have improved over the balance of 2020.

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