The housing crisis is worsening in Los Angeles, where an estimated 60,000 people remain unhoused in Los Angeles County and thousands more are on the cusp of evictions, even as 20,000 hotel rooms remain vacant across the region. This comes as a new ballot measure could require hotels to house homeless people in vacant rooms. The measure is backed by California’s largest hospitality union, UNITE HERE Local 11, and attempts to revive a statewide pandemic policy known as Project Roomkey, which, now set to end, provided vouchers for people experiencing homelessness to use at hotels and motels. “Project Roomkey is one piece of the puzzle,” says Kurt Petersen, co-president for UNITE HERE Local 11, who, along with UCLA professor Ananya Roy, notes massive investments are desperately needed to secure permanent affordable housing. We also speak with former Echo Park Lake encampment resident Will Sens Jr., who is in Project Roomkey and says the program provided stability for him and others.
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.
Some of those most vulnerable are the more than 150,000 people who are experiencing homelessness across the state. In Los Angeles County, there are an estimated 60,000 people who are unhoused, even as some 20,000 hotel 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 builds on a program called Project Roomkey, which sheltered thousands of people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic at hotels and motels and is now set to end. Governor Newsom spoke at a news conference alongside Democratic California Congressmember Karen Bass, who’s running for mayor of Los Angeles. The event was in her congressional district, a neighborhood where she grew up.
REP. KAREN BASS: To be here today and to see this development, this is a very exciting step in the right direction. When the pandemic hit, in Congress, we knew who was going to be impacted the most, and we fought hard to send resources to Los Angeles for Project Roomkey and Project Homekey. And I want to congratulate again the governor for the leadership and the foresight to say that these projects have 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 specific 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 on that. …
We took that model, and because of the leadership of Karen Bass and others, we were able to get the Biden administration to extend that 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 measure was drafted by the union UNITE HERE Local 11, which represents most of Los Angeles hospitality workers. They have also endorsed Congressmember Karen Bass for mayor.
For more, we go to Los Angeles. We’re joined by three guests. Will Sens is with us. He’s been in Project Roomkey at the L.A. Grand Hotel since March of 2021. Before that, he was a resident of 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 directs the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, which is home to the After Echo Park Lake research collective that brings together university and movement-based scholars with unhoused comrades, like Will, to study displacement in Los Angeles. And we’re joined by Kurt Petersen, co-president for UNITE HERE Local 11.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Kurt, let’s begin with you. Talk about this program.
KURT PETERSEN: So, Project Roomkey, in our view, was 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 who were facing homelessness and housing insecurity, and we had hotel workers who were unemployed. And so, the idea was: Can we marry those three problems in this program? And 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. And we were able to put people in these vacant rooms. And frankly, the hotel industry itself got a source of revenue that they otherwise would not have gotten.
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 that hotel developers that bulldoze housing when they build their hotels, that they must replace that housing. In the last decade, thousands of units have been lost because luxury hotel developments have bulldozed and not replaced housing. 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. So, it will be on the ballot in March of 2024. We feel 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 in Will Sens into this 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 of Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing. Talk about why this program is important, what it means to you, how you became unhoused, and then what it means to be at the hotel. Will, are you there?
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 important to help people to have a place to stay and to get themselves together on the pathway to a new house, to a place where they can gain stability. When used properly, it should be like a satellite station for people to be able to find new employment and to be able to kind of get theirselves together, get their things together, to be able to move into a new situation and better their lives. 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 Roy, who is professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography now at UCLA, where she directs the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, which is home to the After Echo Park Lake research collective, bringing together scholars, unhoused comrades, as you say, to study displacement in Los Angeles. Talk about the significance of Project Roomkey, but first about the unhoused population of this country.
ANANYA ROY: Yes. First of all, Amy, thank you for having us on the 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 cusp of mass evictions that will greatly increase mass homelessness. At the same time, what is going on is unregulated corporate acquisition of rental property. Wall Street has gone on a buying spree during the pandemic, as it did during the Great Recession. And yet the policy response in so many cities has been inadequate and, as in the case of Los Angeles, has overwhelmingly focused on the criminalization of homelessness.
I also want to say that this is not a question of 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. Our concern with Project Roomkey, with Project Homekey, is that these programs are minuscule in scale in response to mass homelessness. They also go hand in hand often with the criminalization of homelessness, and that they place people in programs with conditions and rules that we describe as carcerality, that in fact impose carceral isolation and surveillance on poor people, that does not, as Will just pointed out, allow them to make the move to permanent, dignified 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 the opponents to Project Roomkey, like Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, representing hotels and businesses across North Los Angeles. This is Waldman speaking to 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 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. What we have at hand is what we call the racial banishment of our unhoused neighbors, such that there is no place for them to go.
I also want to be clear that the idea of hotels as housing really comes as a demand from unhoused communities during the pandemic. It also comes from movements that pointed out that these hotels, which are seemingly private property, actually are backed by massive public subsidies, millions of dollars in tax breaks, for example, that have made possible this kind of urban development. So these vacant hotels, in fact, signify a public stake in property, and we should, in fact, think about, as UNITE HERE is doing, about how this vacant property is used for purposes of housing.
My concern has to do with the scale. My concern has to do with how it is not sufficient to do this if we are also criminalizing homeless communities, and that, in fact, we cannot do this by imposing carceral conditions and rules on those who will reside in Project Homekey or Project Roomkey.
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 concerned about mass evictions?
ANANYA ROY: Yes. We were the first research center in the country to sound the alarm bell on impending evictions, with a landmark report by professor Gary Blasi that went on to be the basis of several eviction moratoria, including that in California. That was May 2020. And Professor Blasi predicted that half a million renters in L.A. County would be at the risk of eviction without eviction protections.
We are now on the cusp of those evictions. It is crucial to keep people in their homes, including through rent debt cancellation and other forms of 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 report has come out of UCLA, where Professor Roy is. Fifteen hundred unhoused L.A. residents died on the streets during the pandemic. As you speak from a hotel room, do you feel that this is the answer, that attitudes are changing? Will?
Well, let me ask — let me put that question to Kurt Petersen, very quickly, the local president of UNITE HERE Local 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: Yeah, they are unhoused. 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 10 seconds.
KURT PETERSEN: — is exactly right. Exactly right. We need a massive infusion of resources to house folks in Los Angeles. Project Roomkey is one piece of the puzzle, but much, much more is needed. And we’re supportive of everything that keeps people housed in Los Angeles.