When the COVID-19 pandemic began, California established Project Roomkey, an ambitious initiative to house homeless people in hotels and motels to keep them safe from infections. The project leveraged federal dollars to pay for lodging.

Knowing that the program only offered temporary housing, state and local officials have created what they say is a permanent solution: the Homekey initiative. This successor project from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is also using federal funds.

Lourdes Castro Ramirez, secretary of California’s Business, Consumer Services, and Housing Agency, said in an interview with La Opinion that the state has allocated $600 million to buy and rehabilitate homes, including hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings and other property, and converting them into long-term permanent housing for people who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes.

With $600 million available, the administration hopes to provide around 5,000 permanent homes for the most needy individuals and families.

Some of these hotels and motels will be able to go back and continue operating as motels and hotels, Ramirez said. “But many of them are ready to sell, and they think that this has enabled us to provide housing for a group that is in need of a permanent stable affordable housing.”

Ramirez said the administration moved quickly in creating the program and developing criterias. Interested communities will need to apply, submit a proposal, and demonstrate that they have the capacity and the ability to get these units up. 

With $600 million available from the Bay Area to San Diego County, the administration hopes to provide around 5,000 permanent homes for the most needy individuals and families.

Ramirez said that the best part about this program is that rehabilitating existing buildings costs around $140,000, much smaller than the $500,000 it is estimated to cost to build new permanent affordable housing units in Los Angeles.

Riverside starts home planning

Mike Walsh, deputy director at the Riverside County Housing Authority, said they applied and received $10.5 million, which will go towards three projects.

The first will be managed through Project Legacy, a nonprofit organization to create a 52-bed transitional housing facility for people with HIV, AIDS and LGBTQ youth in the city of Riverside.

The second is to obtain the Ivy Palm, a 100-unit motel in Palm Springs, which will have 15 studios for one person each and 65 one-bedroom units where small families can be established, among other options.

And lastly, 40 manufactured housing units will be purchased in Oasis, in the eastern Coachella Valley, specifically for agricultural workers. These will be owned by the Riverside County Housing Authority.

“We want to make sure that we’re transitioning people out in the fastest way possible because we only have three projects, but we’re seeing the need is substantially greater than that.”

mike walsh, Riverside County Housing Authority

Walsh said the Oasis homes project is mainly to respond to a series of mobile homes that have been established by farmers but are unpermitted. 

The Oasis project is expected to be ready by the end of the year, while Project Legacy and the Ivy Palm will be ready sometime in 2021. 

Walsh added that some temporary guests from Project Roomkey hotels and motels in Riverside are already transitioning into permanent supportive housing.

The director considers Homekey a “blessing” for Riverside County since demand has outpaced supply in the pandemic.

“We want to make sure that we’re transitioning people out in the fastest way possible because we only have three projects, but we’re seeing the need is substantially greater than that,” Walsh said. The selection process has not opened yet to the public. When it does, it will be directed to a targeted population.

“We’ll be opening up waiting lists on a variety of various different properties and we’ll be marketing that, basically and taking referrals from agencies to make sure we get all of the units filled,” Walsh said.

Newsom said in a statement Monday that Homekey is not only unprecedented in providing capital to house the homeless, but they are moving it with unprecedented speed.

“Most of these projects will be ready to house people very soon after the acquisitions are complete, providing immediate help to our most vulnerable residents,” Newsom said.

Jacqueline García is a reporter with La Opinión in Los AngelesThis article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Jacqueline Garcia

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...