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Housing and Homelessness

LA’s Infamous Cecil Hotel Transforms Into Apartments For Unhoused Angelenos

Hotel Cecil seen from the front and showing six stories. The building is brown brick, and some of the windows have red awnings above them. The hotel name is prominent above the entrance, in a yellow sign with black letters.
The Cecil Hotel has since been rebranded as Stay On Main.
(Photo by Jim Winstead via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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A notorious hotel in Downtown Los Angeles is being reborn as housing for Angelenos struggling with homelessness.

The Cecil Hotel is infamous for a string of gruesome and often mysterious deaths since it opened in 1924. Over the years, its guests have included serial killer Richard Ramirez and tourist Elisa Lam, whose bizarre death in 2013 was featured in a recent Netflix series.

But on Tuesday morning, the former seedy hotel reopened with a new purpose: providing 600 apartments to unhoused Angelenos.

“This is the best use possible for this particular space, and really can bring a lighter side to the darkness that the building had originally,” said Sierra Atilano, the chief real estate officer at Skid Row Housing Trust, which will manage the building.

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Seeking To Serve LA’s Lowest-Income Renters

The units will be reserved for single renters earning less than 60% of the area’s median income. The goal will be to serve extremely low-income renters — those earning 30% or less of the median income. In L.A., that’s $24,850 per year for an individual.

Atilano said the tenants will likely use publicly-funded housing vouchers to help them afford rent, which will range from $900 to $1,200 per month.

The Cecil could become a stable home for “those that have maybe been in shelters for quite some time, who went through programs and have vouchers, but were unable to find suitable housing,” she said.

In Los Angeles, low-income and unhoused people who receive Section 8 housing vouchers often end up losing those vouchers because most landlords refuse to rent apartments to them.

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How The Cecil Became A Haven For The Unhoused 

The for-profit development company Simon Baron bought the Cecil in 2015, and originally planned to turn it into a mix of affordable housing, market-rate apartments and a revamped hotel. However, the pandemic upended the hotel plans.

Matthew Baron, one of the New York-based developers on the project, said after COVID-19 struck, he approached Skid Row Housing Trust to see if the entire building could be dedicated to housing for very low-income renters.

“It became clear that there was an opportunity to do something here that both made some financial sense and also could be a huge benefit to the community,” he said.

The developer recently finished rehabilitating the 600-room hotel for its grand reopening. The Cecil will essentially provide renters with single-room occupancy (SRO) units, a type of housing common in L.A. during the early 20th Century but almost impossible to build under today’s codes, according to Baron.

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Each resident will have their own small studio ranging from 160 to 176 square feet, with most residents sharing bathrooms as well as communal kitchen and gathering spaces.

Adaptive Reuse Creates New Housing At A Fraction Of The Cost

The high density of units inside the building made the math work in the developer’s favor. And Baron said creating housing out of a building that already existed — through a process called “adaptive reuse” — saved on significant construction costs.

“I didn't have to build a brand new building from the ground up. I was able to repurpose an existing building,” Baron said. “That in and of itself was just a huge saving.”

The project is unusual for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was carried out by a for-profit developer, not one of the nonprofits that specializes in permanent supportive housing.

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In addition, the building conversion was entirely financed with private capital. Most new affordable housing projects in L.A. have relied on taxpayer funding, through sources such as the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program and the city’s Measure HHH, the $1.2 billion bond measure voters passed in 2016.

By taking an adaptive reuse approach, the Cecil is bringing new affordable housing units online at a fraction of the cost seen in other HHH-funded permanent supportive housing projects, where costs have ballooned to more than $500,000 per unit. At that per-unit cost, the new Cecil would’ve cost about $300 million to build from scratch. Instead, Baron said the project cost about $75 million.

He said this project had a lot of unique factors working in its favor — factors that may not be easy to replicate in other developments.

However, the Skid Row Housing Trust’s Atilano said this project shows that L.A. can find creative ways of providing new, cost-efficient housing to unhoused Angelenos.

“People are now working from home, so you have tons of office space that is opening up,” she said. “I think there are many investors out there that would be willing to come to the table if we could maximize their returns through efficiency, and maybe remove some of the red tape on doing adaptive reuse.”

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David Wagner focuses on Southern Californians getting left behind in an economy beset by soaring unemployment, pandemic-related business closures and high housing costs.