While the city and county debate whether to move people experiencing homelessness from individual rooms into mass shelters, which offer no privacy and minimal protection from airborne transmission of COVID-19, the city continued to pay for unused hotel rooms in a high-end downtown hotel through the end of June. Last Wednesday, the council learned that the city has only received a guarantee of $325,000 in federal reimbursement for the empty rooms, which were originally intended for first responders, leaving at least a $1.6 million gap.
The city rented the Executive Pacific Hotel’s 155 rooms in March, at a time when it seemed that emergency personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic might need a place to isolate during the crisis. When that turned out not to be the case (thanks largely to county-wide efforts that limited the number of cases), the city expanded eligibility to include health care workers, who didn’t end up needing many rooms, either. Ultimately, the hotel sat mostly empty during the city’s three-month lease, while thousands of homeless people slept outdoors or crowded into mass shelters—the city’s preferred solution for sheltering people during the crisis.
Because so few people ever stayed in the Executive Pacific Hotel, the city’s actual bill ended up being about $2 million—a sum that paid for about 12 hotel rooms a night. But budget director Ben Noble revealed Wednesday that the city could be on the hook for much of that cost, unless FEMA changes its mind about what it will reimburse.
Noble said he was hopeful that the federal government would reconsider its reimbursement, given that so many cities initially thought they would need mass hospitals and temporary housing for first responders during the early days of the pandemic.
“In terms of facilities, [the city] went out looking for a contract arrangement and that was the one they were able to find on short notice,” Noble said. “FEMA is apparently open to reconsidering the reimbursement, because as it turns out, we weren’t the only city who found itself in this situation at the time.”
Going forward, the city will be paying for the rooms it uses, rather than the cost of the entire hotel.
The larger context for the discussion about reimbursement is the fact that many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New Orleans used high hotel vacancy rates as an opportunity to move people experiencing homelessness into individual rooms that offered more safety, privacy, and dignity than cots or mats in mass shelters. Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted calls for a similar shift of resources in Seattle, preferring to re-distribute mass shelters so that people can sleep slightly further apart.
As council member Lisa Herbold noted Wednesday, the city already has a hotel/motel voucher program that could have been providing families and individuals with safe places to stay, if it had been funded adequately during the pandemic. As it was, the city didn’t have enough vouchers to offer the small number of homeless people removed from Cal Anderson Park during the city’s recent sweep of the CHOP protest zone.
“What is keeping us from boosting funding for that existing program and making those vouchers available for people who are currently in congregate-model shelters?” she asked. “I just imagine there are a lot of hotel rooms in the city that aren’t being used.”
In response, Noble pointed out the existing budget shortfall that will require about $300 million in midyear cuts.
It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the federal government would not see the wisdom in using FEMA dollars to move people into individual rooms rather than warehousing them in shelters. What’s harder to stomach is the argument that spending potentially millions of dollars on empty hotel rooms was a better use of those limited funds than filling some of those beds with people.