Motel Dwellers Say They Were Forced Into Homelessness—So The Motel Could House Homeless People
L.A. County was all set to purchase its 10th vacant hotel and convert the property into housing for the homeless as part of California's new Project Homekey program, but there was one minor problem: the Studio 6 motel in Commerce wasn't vacant.
Earlier this month, after the motel owner kicked everyone out, dozens of occupants claimed they'd been living in the motel for months — or even years — and were being forced into homelessness.
Several families believe they were illegally evicted and denied rights like relocation fees. Others say they were locked out of their rooms this month or that management didn't give them any notice about the sale.
Now, county officials have delayed the sale, while they sort out if occupants have rights of residency — and if not, where they will go.
RIGHT TO STAY
Hope Golden has been sleeping in her car in the parking lot, alongside other families who'd packed their cars and were unsure where to go next.
She says she's been living at the four-story motel stuck between the 5 Freeway and busy Slauson Avenue for more than a year, paying $564 a week cash for a room she shares with her son, daughter and 2-year-old grandson.
The 55-year-old asthmatic who walks with crutches said management did tell her about the looming sale, but she's argued all along that she has a right to stay here, especially during the pandemic.
"I'm not here because I want to be," said Golden. "I don't have a choice. But being thrown out there, I'm scared. Because if I get COVID and get put on a respirator, I'm going to die."
When Golden returned from running some errands early last week, she claims she was locked out of her room and many of her personal belongings were taken. She filed a police report and then came back to the motel to fight for her right to stay.
A CRY FOR HELP
Genevieve Green said she's been living at the Studio 6 for more than a year.
"Since the second week of August 2019, I've been in that same room. I have not been moved," said Green. "I'm not leaving. I'm a resident."
Green pointed up to the room she shares with her two toddlers and 7-month old. She said her weekly rent is covered through the HOPICS Family Solution Center, a regional program for homeless families where she's been a client since 2018.
Green and two of her young children recently recovered from COVID-19 while quarantining in their motel room. She says the owner and management didn't give her a heads up about the sale.
"You can't give me same-day notice to leave, knowing that I'm in a program," said Green. "He knows that I'm in a program and I'm homeless."
Frustrated, Green began reaching out to local organizers and attorneys. Some showed up outside the motel last Friday to protest and advocate for the remaining occupants. One of them was activist Patty Chavez, who said she believes a total of 30 families were displaced to make way for this Project HomeKey site.
"It's an irony," said Chavez. "I mean, you have to leave families homeless in order for you to house the homeless? Why don't you work together with these families, get them a room or place these families elsewhere so you can start the program?"
After Chavez arrived at the motel, LA County decided to delay its purchase date and look into what's been happening. Workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority came that night with pickup trucks and hotel vouchers to help some of those displaced.
Meanwhile, Chavez negotiated getting seven families, including Green's, back into their rooms for now.
WHO'S A TENANT?
Under California law, people staying at a hotel more than 30 days may qualify as tenants, which entitles them to relocation payments.
County officials said they hired professional relocation consultants to visit each of the county's new HomeKey sites during the purchase process to determine whether any guests were long-term residents.
"The owner of this property told the county that there was no one who had been staying at this site for more than 30 days except for the on-site manager," said Phil Ansell, LA County Homeless Initiative director.
The motel is owned by a company called Anmol. While the owner was unavailable for comment, he referred me to Eduardo Gonzalez, who's worked at the motel for two years.
Gonzalez told me the owner probably thought there were no long-term occupants, because the motel has a policy requiring them move out for one day a month before moving back in - a practice which is possibly illegal.
Or it could be that he thought occupants who rent with assistance from homeless agencies would be getting help to move elsewhere.
Gonzalez says most occupants have known about the sale since October.
"Maybe they're just upset because they don't want to leave. But everyone was given a long notice. They should have been expecting to leave."
FIVE ADULTS, ONE CHILD, ONE MOTEL ROOM
Denise Parral, 35, said management required her family to move out every three weeks for one day before checking back in, although others who claimed residency said that hadn't happened to them.
Parral had been living in a room at the Studio 6 motel for two years, after they'd been evicted from their home in Montebello.
She lives with her son, Sam, a third-grader with autism, as well as her mother, father, two adult siblings, two dogs and two cats, all in a single motel room. Parral said they've been paying $800 a week, without any rental assistance.
When motel management told Denise Parral and her family to leave last week, they did. Parral said her 63-year-old father was recovering from a stroke and didn't want to deal with the stress of the situation.
She slept in her car for a few nights. Then Parral came back, to try to make a case for their residency.
"As renters, even though we live in a hotel, we all have rights. So it's our rights that we are fighting for."
Parral said she's also fighting for Sam.
"I don't want to leave the area because of my son's school," Parral said. "That's what worries me the most, my son's schooling."
The County says it's committed to providing relocation fees to anyone who can prove legal tenancy at the motel. Officials are also promising that no current or recent occupants of the Studio 6 are checking out of the motel and into the street.
Parral said she would appreciate getting a spot in a Project HomeKey site, but after two years of motel living, she thinks other types of housing would be more appropriate for her family.
"If we can get rehoused or relocated, that would be better, because five adults and a child in one motel room is pretty annoying sometimes."
L.A. County is paying $15 million for the Commerce motel. After the escrow closes, they'll have just 3 months to convert the property into permanent supportive housing and bring 80 people inside.
FROM ROOMKEY TO HOMEKEY
The site in Commerce is one of about 41 projects purchased by cities and counties in Southern California for Project HomeKey, a state grant program that has awarded $800 million since September. The initiative relies on more than half a billion dollars in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds and is expected to provide more than 2,000 new rooms in a few months.
It's a successor to Project RoomKey, an L.A. County program that aimed to get 15,000 unhoused Angelenos off the streets during the pandemic. The program was focused on those over 65 or at high-risk for contracting coronavirus, but was only able to secure 4,000 hotel rooms and serve 6,000 clients. Federal reimbursements have covered 75% of the bill. But that funding is going away and the Project RoomKey program is winding down.
"All the money spent on that is basically gone, and there's nothing left in its place," said Gary Blasi, a retired UCLA professor and public interest lawyer. "One advantage of Project HomeKey is that the property and the land is being permanently acquired by the public and nonprofit sector."
L.A. County has already purchased nine additional hotels, mostly Motel 6 locations. The City of Los Angeles has purchased 10 sites of its own, mostly hotels, but also a new 40-unit apartment building in the San Fernando that welcomed the region's first HomeKey clients earlier this month.
The average acquisition cost was less than $150,000 per unit, compared to more than $500,000 per unit to construct permanent supportive housing under Measure HHH.
There are more than 100,000 hotel rooms in L.A. County, and most of them are empty.
Blasi thinks the Project HomeKey program has a lot of promise, but he said cities and counties scooping up struggling motels must of course consider the people who may already be living in them.
"There's obviously no upside to making a person homeless in order to make room for a presently homeless person," said Blasi. "The net gain there is zero."
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