More than 50 advocacy groups on Wednesday urged city officials to use available resources to buy struggling hotels that they say could house homeless residents more quickly and cheaply than building new units.
The push comes after the Biden administration announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would reimburse 100 percent of the costs associated with shelter-in-place hotels, where more than 2,000 unhoused folks moved during the pandemic. The recent federal policy change is expected to free up $83 million in city funds, which advocates for the homeless argue should be used on permanent housing solutions.
“This is just an incredible window of opportunity and we don’t want The City to blow it,” said Sara Shortt, Community Housing Partnership director of policy and community organizing, at a press conference on Wednesday. “This chance is not likely to come again, not at all. The owners want to sell, we have the money, what are we waiting for?”
Groups including the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco AIDS Foundation and GLIDE sent a letter to Mayor London Breed this week urging hotel purchases. They estimate acquiring properties and fixing them up to be suitable for residential living would cost an average of $300,000 per unit, plus about $13,000 in operating costs, and that the units could be available in a matter of months. That compares to an average of $600,000 per unit to build new affordable housing, which can take several years.
San Francisco has bought two hotels with a total of 360 rooms in the past year, the Granada and Diva, using a total of $74 million in funds from California’s Project Homekey, which was set up to finance such purchases during the pandemic.
City leases of hotel rooms that would otherwise be sitting largely vacant during the pandemic have offered often-elusive stability for some homeless residents and advocates urge that that progress should be maintained. Keegan Medrano, COH policy and social media director, shared that his mother was in a shelter-in-place hotel in Sacramento for a while, but was exited out of the program and is now back on the street.
“At the end of the day, it’s about human lives and it’s about this opportunity to uplift individuals and place them in empowering situations,” Medrano said. “For some of these folks, this is the first time they’ve had a shower in a decade. We can save time, we can save money and ultimately, we can save lives.”
Long-held funds from the 2018 Proposition C “Our City, Our Home” measure were freed up from litigation last fall, making $393 million available. San Francisco is now working with an unexpected $125 million budget surplus, rather than an anticipated $115 million deficit.
San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safai and Board President Shamann Walton have authored a resolution to have San Francisco commit to acquiring as many hotels as funding makes possible or consider offering long-term leases. The resolution, which will be heard at the Government Audit and Oversight Committee on Thursday, urges the Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing to work with other departments to identify possible hotels for purchase.
The use of hotel rooms has been an ongoing source of conflict during the pandemic, however. Supervisors last April unanimously passed legislation calling for The City to lease 8,250 rooms for people experiencing homelessness and at high risk for severe coronavirus cases. Mayor London Breed called that legislation unrealistic and did not comply.
FEMA originally agreed to reimburse 75 percent of the hotel placement costs and uncertainty persisted over how long the program would last under the Trump administration. HSH at one point began to plan to move people out late last year so The City wouldn’t suddenly be on the hook for the estimated $178 million annual cost of the program, until advocates and supervisors moved to halt the shutdown.
Advocates emphasized on Wednesday the potential for a substantial long-term solution now that the funds are freed up. Ongoing operating costs must still be worked out.
“We have an opportunity here to do something meaningful in the near term to get more people off the streets,” said Joe Wilson, executive director of Hospitality House, who was formerly homeless. “That experience never truly leaves you. It would be unconscionable to not take advantage of that opportunity.”