Los Angeles is experiencing a housing crisis. An estimated 60,000 people are still unhoused in Los Angeles County, and thousands more are at risk of being evicted. In addition, 20,000 hotel rooms remain vacant in the region. This is because a new ballot measure could make it mandatory for hotels to accommodate homeless people in empty rooms. The measure is backed by California’s largest hospitality union, UNITE Click HERELocal 11 aims to revive a statewide pandemic strategy known as Project Roomkey. This policy, now ending, provided vouchers to homeless people to use at motels and hotels. “Project Roomkey is one piece of the puzzle,” says Kurt Petersen, co-president for UNITE Click HERELocal 11, who, together with UCLAProfessor Ananya Roy notes that massive investments are needed to ensure permanent affordable housing. We also talk to Will Sens Jr. a former Echo Park Lake encampment resident, who says Project Roomkey provided stability for him as well as others.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to California in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave, with temperatures 10 to 20 degrees hotter than usual. We’re talking about breaking three digits, over 100 degrees in some places in the region — that’s Fahrenheit.
The state’s more than 150,000 homeless people are some of the most vulnerable. Los Angeles County has an estimated 60,000 homeless people. Meanwhile, 20,000 hotels rooms remain vacant.
Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom announced new funding for the state’s Homekey program to create homes for people exiting homelessness. It is a continuation of Project Roomkey, which provided shelter for thousands of homeless people during the hotel and motel pandemic. Now it will be ended. Governor Newsom spoke at a news conference alongside Democratic California Congressmember Karen Bass, who’s running for mayor of Los Angeles. The event was held in her congressional district. This is the same neighborhood where she was born.
REP. KAREN BASS:It is an exciting step forward to be here today and witness this development. We knew who was going be most affected by the pandemic, so Congress worked hard to send resources to Los Angeles for Project Roomkey, Project Homekey, and other projects. I want to once again congratulate the governor for his leadership and the foresight in stating that these projects need to continue. It’s not just at the height of the pandemic, but homelessness has continued, and we need to have this support on an ongoing basis.
GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: And I want folks to know they shouldn’t give up. I want folks to know we’re just winding up. I want folks to know we’re just getting started. Let me be precise about that. …
The congresswoman was instrumental in helping us draw down federal money to do something never been done in the United States, and that’s where this Roomkey model came from. We were actually able to use $846 million of federal money, not a dollar of state money, drew down $846 million, and in six months we were able to procure, bring into a portfolio over 6,000 housing units, unprecedented in the state’s history. Do the math. …
We used that model and, thanks to Karen Bass’ leadership, were able to convince the Biden administration that they would extend the program. That’s the spirit of this moment. It allowed us to take that original vision and now replicate it, where, as Gustavo said, we now have, with today’s announcement, and within a few days, when people move in, to be technically correct, 12,500 units we’ve brought online in just a matter of a couple of years.
AMY GOODMAN: California Governor Gavin Newsom’s multibillion-dollar homeless housing project comes as the Los Angeles City Council recently voted to put on the 2024 ballot an initiative called the Responsible Hotel Ordinance to house homeless people in vacant rooms. The union drafted this measure. UNITE Click HERELocal 11, which represents the majority of Los Angeles hospitality workers. They also endorsed Karen Bass, Congressmember for mayor.
Los Angeles has more to offer. We’re joined by three guests. Will Sens is here. He’s been in Project Roomkey at the L.A. Grand Hotel since March of 2021. Before that, he was a resident in the Echo Park Lake Encampment. He’s a founding member of Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing. We’re also joined by UCLA professor Ananya Roy. She is the director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. This collective houses the After Echo Park Lake research group, which brings together university-based scholars and unhoused comrades like Will to study displacement in Los Angeles. And we’re joined by Kurt Petersen, co-president for UNITE Click HERELocal 11.
We are glad to have you as part of our family. Democracy Now! Kurt, let’s begin with you. Talk about this program.
KURT PETERSEN:Project Roomkey was, in our opinion, a brilliant idea. We had, during the pandemic, the entire city was bereft of tourists, and so there were tens of thousands — a hundred thousand hotel rooms that were vacant. We had people facing homelessness, housing insecurity, as well unemployed hotel workers. The idea was to combine the three problems into one program. It worked. We were able to put 10,000 unhoused folks into hotels — like Will, in one of our downtown properties, the L.A. Grand — where our members work, proudly, in this program and have found it beneficial because they kept their jobs. We were able to place people in these empty rooms. And the hotel industry was able to get a source of revenue that it otherwise wouldn’t have.
So, what we decided to do after that program was: How can we further not only this program, but how can we — how can the hotel industry, how can our members alleviate this crisis? And so, we went door to door and collected 126,000 signatures from L.A. voters — an overwhelmingly positive response — on an initiative that would do two things. One, it would require hotel developers who bulldoze houses when they build hotels to replace the housing. Luxury hotel developments have bulldozed, not replaced, housing in the last decade. This has resulted in thousands of units being lost. And secondly, we said, “Let’s put into place permanently a voucher system for folks who are unhoused. And let’s make sure that, going forward, hotels need to respect those vouchers and allow people to sleep in their rooms, because that’s the right thing.” And it worked during the pandemic in Project Roomkey, and we think it needs to be used going forward. It will be on March 2024’s ballot. We are confident it will pass. And we feel like it’s the right thing to do as Angelenos who are facing this extraordinarily difficult time of the lack of affordable housing and a large unhoused population.
AMY GOODMAN:Let me bring Will Sens into the conversation. You’ve been in Project Roomkey at the L.A. Grand Hotel for well over a year. In fact, you’re joining us from there right now. You are also a founding member in Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing. Discuss why this program is important, the meaning of it, how you got unhoused, and what it means to you to be at the Hotel. Will you?
WILL SENS JR.: Well, Amy, it is important — can you hear me?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I can hear you now.
WILL SENS JR.: OK, great. The Project Roomkey is essential to help people have a place to live and get together on the path to a new home, to stability. It should work as a satellite station that allows people to find new employment, get their stuff together, and then be able move into a better life. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been happening quite so clearly as that for most people so far in the program.
AMY GOODMAN:Let me ask Ananya, who is now a professor of urban planning and social welfare. UCLAShe directs the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. It is also home to After Echo Park Lake, a research collective that brings together scholars and unhoused comrades to study displacement Los Angeles. Talk about Project Roomkey’s significance, but first talk about the unhoused population in this country.
ANANYA ROY: Yes. Amy, first of all, thank you for having me and my guests on your show. I think it’s important for us to take stock of the moment at hand, because the moment at hand is a time of mass homelessness. We are also in this country (including here in Los Angeles) on the verge of mass evictions which will greatly increase mass homeless. The unregulated corporate purchase of rental properties is also happening. Wall Street is on a buying spree in the aftermath of the pandemic. This was also true during the Great Recession. Yet, the policy response in many cities has been insufficient and, as in Los Angeles, has overwhelmingly centered on criminalizing homelessness.
I also want you to know that this is not about resource scarcity. The clip you played from Governor Newsom’s speech talks very much about the vast federal resources that are available for housing and homelessness. And what the governor didn’t talk about is that California itself has a massive budget surplus. We are concerned about Project Roomkey and Project Homekey because these programs are small in scale in response mass homelessness. They are often associated with criminalization of homelessness. They place people into programs that we refer to as carcerality. These rules and conditions impose carceral surveillance and isolation on poor people. But that does not, Will just mentioned, allow them to move to permanent, decent housing. So we’re seeing a perverse investment of vast public resources often in carceral shelter and containment rather than in permanent social housing.
AMY GOODMAN:Let me ask you about Project Roomkey’s critics, Stuart Waldman (president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association), who represents hotels and businesses in North Los Angeles. This is Waldman speaking. CNN.
STUART WALDMAN: I wouldn’t want my kids around people that I’m not sure about. I wouldn’t want to be in an elevator with somebody who’s clearly having a mental break. The idea that you can intermingle homeless folks with paying, normal guests just doesn’t work out.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Professor Ananya Roy?
ANANYA ROY: What we’re hearing here is the constant dehumanization of our unhoused neighbors. This has become a commonplace. It is now expressed in a whole series of policies, including L.A.’s notorious anti-camping law, that L.A. City Council continues to expand. We have what we call the “racial banishment” of our unhoused neighbor, so that they don’t have a place to go.
Also, I want to make it clear that the idea hotels are housing is a result of the need for unhoused communities during the pandemic. It also comes out of movements that pointed out the fact that these hotels, while appearing to be private property, are actually backed by massive public subsidies. These tax breaks have enabled this kind of urban growth. These vacant hotels are in fact a public stake in real estate, something we should consider. UNITE Click HEREis doing, and how this vacant property can be used for housing purposes.
My concern is about the scale. My concern is with the scale.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Roy, there’s all this infusion of funds. But with the pandemic restrictions lifting, you’re seeing the end of the subsidies. Are you worried about mass evictions
ANANYA ROY: Yes. Yes. It was May 2020. Professor Blasi also predicted that half a billion renters in L.A. County could be evicted without eviction protections.
We are at the brink of these evictions. It is essential to keep people living in their homes, including through rent repayment cancellation and other forms tenant protections. It’s crucial to stop the criminalization of our unhoused neighbors. And it’s also crucial to use those public resources in an ambitious program of social housing, where housing is a social right and is not conditional upon racialized and gendered rules and conditions.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Will Sens — a reportIt has been released from UCLAProfessor Roy is located. During the pandemic, fifteen hundred L.A. residents who were not housed died on the streets. Are you able to speak from a hotel room and feel that this is the way forward? Will?
Well, let me ask — let me put that question to Kurt Petersen, very quickly, the local president of UNITE Click HERELocal 11. You’re concerned that some of your own members of the hospitality community could become unhoused themselves. They’re a step away.
KURT PETERSEN:They are not housed. We recently lost a member who died in her van because she couldn’t keep paying her rent and was evicted. Our folks are moving further and further out of Los Angeles because they can’t afford to live here. Professor Roy —
AMY GOODMAN:We have ten seconds.
KURT PETERSEN: — is exactly right. It is exactly right. To house people in Los Angeles, we need a huge infusion of resources. Project Roomkey is only one piece of the puzzle. But there are many more pieces. And we’re supportive of everything that keeps people housed in Los Angeles.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to look at so much more. Kurt Petersen (co-president): I want you to know how much we appreciate your support. UNITE Click HERELocal 11; Professor Ananya Roy; Will Sens. I’m Amy Goodman. Keep safe.