Homelessness has only gotten worse in Western societies in recent years, despite decades of social science research, billions of dollars of expenditure, and consistent economic growth. However, there is a chance that emergency COVID-19 measures could catalyze substantial changes for the better. One excellent candidate policy is swift government action to procure distressed hotel and motel units and use them to shelter people experiencing homelessness. Success in this endeavor could demonstrate that it is possible to house people humanely and immediately, if there is the social and political will to follow through.
Homeless people die on the streets every day in the United States. A recent study found that a cohort of unsheltered homeless individuals had three times higher mortality than sheltered homeless individuals, and ten times higher than the general population. In Los Angeles, this translated to 1,047 deaths, or 2.9 deaths per day, in 2018. And that was before anyone outside the medical field had ever heard the term “coronavirus.”
From the time COVID-19 was first discovered in California, there was particular concern that its large homeless population, aging and prone to underlying health conditions, could be decimated by the disease. Los Angeles announced that its recreation centers, closed to the public, would become homeless shelters. In yet another reflection of its astonishing late-capitalist current situation, San Francisco has announced that two palaces – The Palace Hotel and the Palace of Fine Arts – would eschew their global elite clientele and patrons and instead house homeless residents and SRO occupants during the pandemic.
The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom announced the state response, with a focus on sending sick and vulnerable homeless people to ride out the pandemic in hotels and motels that were closed to paying customers. By April 3, state officials announced that 6,867 rooms had been leased. When all is said and done, the state intends to lease up to 15,000 rooms for the duration of the pandemic. Some or all of the leases may have included an option for the state to purchase the hotel or motel property at a later date. Such capital investment would be an extraordinary policy step, but could actually be a promising step towards reducing homelessness.
Theoretically, the properties could be converted to permanent supportive housing with individual units. Spending on these units, even with necessary refurbishment, could prove significantly more cost-effective than new construction. For example, a 20-room motel in Los Angeles is currently listed for sale at $2,700,000, or $135,000 per room. This is just one-fourth of the typical total new construction unit cost for permanent supportive housing units. Even after additional substantive investment to refurbish, provide disability access, and initiate supportive services, costs could be lower than current new permanent supportive housing projects. And, the units already exist, eliminating construction from the arduous timeline to get projects up and running. The governor or a mayor might even be able to use emergency powers to overcome NIMBY opposition to the zoning changes that would be necessary to convert from hotel to residential use.
After the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, governments that acted to shelter their homeless populations will face an ethical dilemma. For example, the City of Los Angeles will have to decide: when we are ready to re-open our recreation centers to the public, what will happen to the people who have been sheltered there? Will we force them back onto the street? Compassion demands that we find a solution for our homeless neighbors that is safer and more dignified than living on the street. State governments should transfer hotel and motel assets acquired during the pandemic to counties, cities, and non-profits, and in turn, these entities should use the units to provide immediate shelter to their homeless populations. The properties should then be refurbished, and wraparound services added, as quickly as funding and construction schedules allow. In the end, morbid as it may sound, this pandemic might finally convince us to do what we have always known was the right thing: make a massive, cost-effective social investment to protect our most vulnerable neighbors.
This piece represents the author’s personal opinion. Its recommendations are not necessarily supported or sanctioned by the RAND Corporation.