By ERIC HE
Los Angeles housing officials were pressed Thursday by city council members on the city’s exit strategy from Project Roomkey, a housing program created during the pandemic that is being wound down, leaving the fate of hundreds of unhoused residents uncertain.
Councilman Kevin de León, chair of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee, blasted the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority during Thursday’s meeting for being unresponsive in providing a demobilization plan for the over 800 residents still living in housing provided by Project Roomkey. The city council directed LAHSA last month to provide a plan, “out of utter frustration,” de León said.
The committee voted Thursday to recommend the city council extend the city’s three Project Roomkey sites for several more months.
“We’ve been asking for the demobilization plan for a long time,” Councilman Bob Blumenfield said. “It feels like we’re just constantly dealing with an agency that’s dragging its feet on a lot of this stuff. And it’s beyond frustrating.”
There are three remaining Project Roomkey sites in Los Angeles: Highland Gardens in Hollywood, Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys and the LA Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. A fourth at the Cadillac Hotel in Venice is being funded by the county.
As of July, 323 residents have been matched or are in the process of receiving an emergency housing voucher, but more than 200 have not yet received a voucher or been entered into a housing program.
LAHSA provided the committee Thursday with recommendations to phase out Project Roomkey.
All intakes would be paused and the city would work to provide vouchers to residents. Both the Airtel Plaza and Highland Gardens sites would shutter on Oct. 31, and the Grand Hotel site would close at the end of next January. The city would allocate approximately $6 million to support housing navigation services to help program participants use the vouchers to find housing.
But council members expressed doubt that simply providing participants with vouchers would lead to them being able to find permanent housing. LAHSA has one housing navigator for every 20 clients, according to Molly Rysman, acting co-executive director of LAHSA.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development provided over 3,300 vouchers to the city’s housing authority to help place residents from Project Roomkey permanent housing this year, and all of those have been issued, according to Doug Guthrie, president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles.
But federal funding does not include supportive services to help residents navigate the process to find housing — including identifying landlords willing to accept vouchers.
De León criticized LAHSA’s report, claiming that it doesn’t “attempt to address the situation even remotely.”
“This tells the committee and council as a whole that LASHA, at no time over the two-year lifespan of the program, created or thought of an exit strategy for a program that everyone knew was temporary,” de León said.
De León said the city council doesn’t believe it is being treated like a partner by LAHSA.
“When we ask for time lengths, when we ask for long-term planning, it’s almost like we feel like we have to fight tooth and nail to get it,” de León said.
Rysman said she heard and shared de León’s frustration.
“This is a massive endeavor,” Rysman said. “Moving 800 people is a huge endeavor, and it is something we all have to do in lockstep together, and we certainly don’t do it perfectly all the time.”
Rysman said that LAHSA has been planning an exit strategy since fall 2020.
“From the very beginning of PRK, we have been focused on, “`What is the exit strategy?”‘ Rysman said. “What is it going to take to move PRK from permanent housing? That has absolutely been our focus.”
Project Roomkey was established during the pandemic to provide temporary emergency housing. It was funded by both the city and the county, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided full reimbursements through July. There were 37 hotels and motels contracted through the program at its height, with 4,000 rooms available.
The program provided shelter for more than 10,200 people experiencing homelessness over the last two years. Residents received meals, medical screenings and security services. More than 4,100 Project Roomkey participants found permanent housing as of March, according to LAHSA.
As of Thursday, the city’s housing authority has issued 587 vouchers to Project Roomkey participants, and 135 of voucher recipients have either secured a lease or have a lease-in-progress, according Doug Guthrie.
“We’re making a lot of headway on that program,” Guthrie said. “Obviously not enough. Obviously, it’s not a panacea until all of the challenges being faced (are resolved). There’s a lot more to go.”
Guthrie said it has been taking between 45 to 60 days for a voucher to be approved once a recipient finds a matching residence, which is longer than the 30 days that most landlords would typically hold spaces for. He noted that Los Angeles is seeing unprecedented demand for housing, and people relying on vouchers face a particularly uphill climb.
De León instructed LAHSA to provide a more detailed report by next week. The committee sent the item to be heard by the Budget and Finance Committee later this month.
A caller who identified herself as Peggy Lee Kennedy, an activist with the Venice Justice Committee, was among several callers who criticized the decision to close the Project Roomkey sites, fearing that it would leave unhoused residents on their own to navigate a chaotic voucher process.
“This voucher thing is a joke,* Kennedy said. “Do you know how many of these vouchers are actually getting housing? When you close these Project Roomkeys down, people go back into the street.”