After Reopening For LA’s Unhoused Last Year, The Infamous Cecil Hotel Remains Mostly Empty
Late last year, an infamous hotel in downtown Los Angeles reopened with a new mission: housing the unhoused.
Perhaps best known as the site of mysterious deaths featured in countless pulpy true crime documentaries, the Cecil Hotel on Main Street has been slowly transforming into a place formerly unhoused Angelenos can call home.
But more than seven months after its official reopening, the owners of the Cecil Hotel say that getting tenants into the building has been tougher than expected.
“No one is more frustrated than us or our lenders and investment partners,” said New York-based developer Matthew Baron. “We'd love to see the entire building being filled up tomorrow.”
73 Of 600 Units Occupied
About 73 apartments in the 600-unit building are now occupied. Nearly every tenant is a formerly unhoused Angeleno relying on a subsidized housing voucher to exit homelessness. But the lease-up process has been slow, and the building remains mostly empty.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, an organization that has often waded into L.A. housing politics, has recently placed provocative full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times demanding that City Hall “fill the Cecil now.”
“If Matt Baron feels that he doesn't know how to fill a building where there's the highest concentration of homelessness in the country, then maybe someone else should be taking control of that building,” said Susie Shannon, policy director for Housing Is A Human Right, a division of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Baron said some of the units are unoccupied because they’re still being renovated. But he said other problems have stood in the way of getting tenants into the Cecil.
The Delay On Raising Voucher Rates
For example, it took months for the city of L.A.’s housing authority to raise voucher rates for the building’s small, single-room apartments.
The city originally proposed rent subsidies of no more than $971 per month, much lower than the city’s maximum payment standard of $1,245 for single-room occupancy apartments. Eventually the city agreed to subsidize rents of $1,245 per month, a level that Baron said is acceptable to the Cecil’s investors.
Baron also said the Cecil isn’t getting as many tenant referrals from government agencies and local nonprofits as they had hoped.
A few dozen tenants have moved in with federal Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHV), which L.A. has struggled to use (the city’s 6% voucher utilization rate is one of the lowest in California). Baron said the Cecil, which is managed by the Skid Row Housing Trust, is willing to accept more voucher holders.
Why The Project Is Unusual
The Cecil is an unusual affordable housing project, relying entirely on private capital while most L.A. housing built for people experiencing homelessness relies on public financing. Baron said this model has proven difficult to execute.
“In a private capital deal, our job, quite frankly, is to acquire the asset, build it or renovate it and prepare it for people to live there. We've done that,” Baron said. “Now, we need the public side to step up and help us get it filled.”
Earlier this month, L.A. city councilmembers Kevin De León and Bob Blumenfield put forward a proposal that would have the city “master lease” the entire building in an effort to move in tenants faster.
Part of their motion reads, “Given the overwhelming need to address unsheltered homelessness in the City, including in Skid Row, the City should evaluate and outline a potential program with the Cecil Hotel to create temporary homeless housing.”
By directly leasing all the units, the city — or an agency such as the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) working in concert with the city — could more rapidly place unhoused Angelenos into housing, sidestepping the widespread landlord discrimination that prevents L.A. voucher-holders from finding apartments.
Master leasing could also benefit the building’s owner, because the owner would have the ease of dealing with just one government lessee rather than 600 individual tenants.
Baron said depending on the details, he’s supportive of the idea of master leasing the Cecil. It’s unclear when the city council proposal will come up for a vote.