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Housing and Homelessness

LA’s New Mayor Promises To Speed Up Homeless Housing Through ‘Master Leasing.’ Here’s What That Means

A "for lease" hangs on a multistory apartment with a high white wrought iron fence as an ambulance drives nearby.
A "for lease" sign is seen hanging outside an apartment building in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(David Wagner
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L.A.’s new mayor Karen Bass has declared a state of emergency on homelessness, which the city council approved Tuesday.

In a news conference announcing her plans, Bass said in order to quickly move people out of encampments, the city needs to have housing units lined up and ready to go.

“To do that, we will launch an aggressive unit acquisition strategy, master leasing apartments and motel rooms across the city,” Bass said.

Demystifying ‘Master Leasing’

But what is master leasing? In its most basic form, master leasing involves cities leasing an entire building (making the city the master lease-holder) and then subleasing those units to whoever they want — in this case, people living on the streets.

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“It creates efficiencies in how quickly you can house people,” said Urban Institute principal research associate Samantha Batko, co-author of a recent report on master leasing in L.A.

Master leasing can take many forms. Aside from directly leasing entire buildings, a city could work with nonprofits acting as master lease-holders. Or the city could offer incentives to landlords in exchange for agreements to rent to certain tenants the city wants to see housed.

Through master leasing, Batko said, the city would be able to move unhoused people into housing units quickly, bypassing the kind of rejection people with housing vouchers or bad credit commonly encounter.

“This is a proposal that essentially removes a lot of the tenant screening barriers that occur when a private individual rents from a private landlord,” Batko said.

What’s Stopping Master Leases From Moving Forward?

Master leasing isn’t a new idea. It was implemented through the pandemic-era program Project Roomkey, which involved using federal funds to temporarily house unsheltered Angelenos in a number of hotel and motel buildings.

But master leasing isn’t as simple as it might sound. Deals can fall through when cities and property owners disagree on who should pay for costs like building damage or unit vacancies.

In July, city councilmembers proposed master leasing the 600-unit Cecil Hotel in Downtown L.A. The building, which has a sordid history highlighted in Netflix shows and true crime documentaries, reopened for unhoused tenants last year, but remains mostly empty.

It’s unclear if the city has made much progress on plans to master lease the Cecil. The building’s owner, Matthew Baron, still hopes to fill the building with the city’s help.

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“We have been discussing this with the Bass transition team and are excited about [Monday’s] announcement,” Baron said in an email to LAist. “We believe this is a step in the direction. We have 400 units we want to bring online and we are hopeful that we will be a part of this new urgency to house people experiencing homelessness quickly.”

Master Leasing Is Not A ‘Panacea’

Bass said she’s been in touch with motel owners, and will have more announcements soon.

The Urban Institute’s Batko said master leasing holds potential to speed up the process of getting someone off the streets and into housing, especially compared with the long approval and development timelines involved with building homeless housing from scratch.

But Batko cautioned master leasing is “not going to be a panacea.” The city still desperately needs to increase its supply of affordable housing through new construction, she said, not just enter into leasing agreements with owners of existing property.

“We know that there's not enough affordable housing stock, period,” Batko said. “Master leasing is not going to singularly solve that gap between the number of people who need affordable housing and the amount of affordable housing that exists.”

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