When COVID-19 swept across the United States last spring, it prompted a bevy of emergency public health responses, including the leasing of hotel and motel rooms to safely house vulnerable homeless people. Though far from perfect, the projects got thousands of people into non-congregate shelter and helped prevent further COVID outbreaks. As the pandemic drags on, state and city officials are looking to expand or revive those leasing efforts, or outright buy hotels as a permanent housing solution. What is driving the expansion, and why do some communities still avoid the hotel housing model?
Hotel rooms had been used to house people on the verge of homelessness for years before COVID-19, but the risk posed by the pandemic spurred local governments to lease these rooms at a larger scale. In some cases, local governments that once housed a few hundred people now house thousands, and they’re doing it with greater urgency than ever before.
Advocates of expanding the use of hotel rooms for this purpose point to the struggles facing the hospitality industry. Occupancy is down as both leisure and business travel have collapsed while large gatherings go virtual and people forgo unnecessary trips. A Jan. 21 report by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) indicates that business is not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels for at least three years, and that half of all hotel rooms in the U.S. will remain empty until then.
The hotel housing programs may continue to expand due to a promise of more federal reimbursement. In the past year, many programs, such as ones in California and Vermont, were aided or enabled by a FEMA policy that reimbursed 75 percent of the leasing costs. On Jan. 21, the new Biden administration ordered FEMA to reimburse local governments at 100 percent of the cost through Sept. 30.
That decision is a game changer, says …