California’s Hotels Transformed Into Housing for the Homeless During the Pandemic

Project Turnkey has helped provide housing for thousands of homeless people across the state. But what happens next?

Nathan Bahadursingh Nathan Bahadursingh

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Last month, California Governor, Gavin Newsom, announced an injection of $62 million in additional funding to help support Project Roomkey, a first-of-its-kind, statewide initiative that is providing thousands of Californians experiencing homelessness with temporary housing in order to protect them and the state from COVID-19. This most recent influx of emergency funding will allow counties to keep homeless individuals sheltered who were set to be evicted from temporary hotel rooms by the end of the year.

Launched in April, Project Roomkey is a coordinated effort by the state, local agencies and community partners to secure rooms in hotels and motels throughout California, taking advantage of vacancies due to the proliferation of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the governor’s office also supported state and local governments to purchase approximately 1,300 trailers to serve as housing.

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Lee Fournier stands at the doorway of his hotel room provided by Project Roomkey; image via Vickie Connor/The Desert Sun

The program is supported by $15 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which enables local governments to recoup 75% of the room costs, as well as costs for essential services. As of late June, the state had filled 10,644 hotel rooms and leased 15,837, according to the California Health Care Foundation. According to The Desert Sun, more than 28,000 people — 17% of California’s homeless population — have received a room placement under the program.

The emergency funding comes as temporary hotel shelters begin to close across the state, due to the requirement that funding needs to be spent by the end of the year. This puts the thousands of individuals who were provided housing through Project Roomkey at risk of returning to homelessness as the pandemic continues across the country. 

According to The Mercury News, $35 million of the emergency funding will go towards rehousing Project Roomkey residents. This money is for rental subsidies, case management, housing navigation, landlord incentives and other housing expenses. Another $24 million will go towards strengthening the existing Project Roomkey program, allowing residents to stay in their accommodations until they obtain permanent housing. The last $3 million will go toward technical assistance, helping counties contract with experienced housing providers and create rehousing plans.

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom tours inside one of the residential units during the grand opening of an emergency interim housing community site on Monterey Road in San Jose, California after the announcement of an additional $200 million for Project Homekey; image via Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group

This is just the latest wave of funding for Project Roomkey. In June, Newsom unveiled Project Homekey, an evolution of Project Roomkey that involves the administration of $600 million in state and federal emergency funds by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to cities, counties and other local public entities to purchase and convert motels, hotels, vacant apartment complexes and other redundant buildings into interim or permanent, long-term housing. In late October, an additional $200 million was added to help support Project Homekey.

While money to support these initiatives continues to pour in, it still isn’t enough to create housing for everyone. So far, only 5% of Roomkey clients have found a permanent home, according to The Desert Sun’s analysis. Competition between counties to secure state funding and the reluctance of others to participate also adds further roadblocks. But, Newsom’s administration has expressed belief that the legislature may consider further expansion of the Project Homekey program when it reconvenes in January.

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This Comfort Inn in Oakland was one of the first hotels to become part of Project Roomkey; image courtesy Alameda County Health Care Services Agency

“Project Roomkey exceeded all expectations, providing safe shelter to more than 22,300 Californians experiencing homelessness,” Newsom says. “But this pandemic is very much still with us – and we can’t take our eye off the ball. That’s why we’re supporting our counties with this new money, so they can continue this critical life-saving Roomkey mission and help clients transition into more stable, permanent housing. At the end of the day, our top objective for this new funding is keeping everyone – including people experiencing homelessness – safe from COVID-19.”

California’s initiative raises pertinent questions for the future — how sustainable is a project like this? Should the architectural design of future hotels and motels factor in the possibility of changes to their function similar to those seen during this pandemic? Are there opportunities for urban planners, politicians and other players to collaborate on ways to ease the challenges of mass rehousing operations in future scenarios?

For architects and planners interested in these macro-level questions, California’s Project Roomkey may prove to be a fascinating case study in the months and years to come.

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