San Diego City Council approves hotel purchases for homeless housing

San Diego City Council members on Tuesday unanimously approved the purchase of two hotels that within two months could become permanent homes for 400 people now at a temporary shelter at the Convention Center.

While no one knows when the venue again will be used for conventions, ending the shelter prepares the city for when that day finally comes. The city opened the shelter in April out of fears that the coronavirus could spread at other city-run shelters, and as of Tuesday, there were 1,044 people staying at the Convention Center.

Council members also approved a one-year contract for People Assisting the Homeless to provide management and supportive services at the 190-unit Marriott Residence Inn at 1865 Hotel Circle South and approved a one-year contract for Father Joe’s Villages to provide the same at the 142-room hotel at 5400 Kearny Mesa Road. The Hotel Circle property cost $67 million and the Kearny Mesa property $39.5 million.

All 27 public speakers Tuesday addressed only the Hotel Circle purchase, with 11 in support. Opponents included residents of the nearby Mission Village Condominiums who had concerns about safety in their neighborhood, with a few speakers suggesting the city expand Downtown San Diego Partnership’s Clean and Safe program to their neighborhood.

Council members saw little problem with the purchases, though Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell asked if there would be communication with community members to address concerns brought up at the meeting.

San Diego Housing Commission President and CEO Rick Gentry said there already had been two meetings with neighborhood residents and business owners, and the commission was committed to holding more meetings periodically. He also said people with concerns about the project’s impact on their neighborhood could visit similar Housing Commission projects already operating.

Councilman Scott Sherman vouched for the Housing Commission’s track record by saying he can see the Zephyr apartments from his backyard in Grantville, and the building looks like any other hotel. The 84-unit project on Alvarado Canyon Road provides housing for formerly homeless veterans and opened last year after the Housing Commission bought and converted an old motel.

Responding to concerns some speakers had about the hotel being a magnet for homeless people seeking help, Sherman asked if services at the hotel would be available to anyone. Gentry said they only would be offered to residents of the hotel.

Speaking before the council Tuesday, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the Operation Shelter to Home program at the Convention Center had successfully housed more than 600 homeless people, and it was time to move on to a new phase that included more housing.

“Allowing people to live unsafely on the streets is not OK,” Faulconer said after the Tuesday vote.

The hotels will provide 400 rooms for people now at the Convention Center, while others at the venue will move back to city-run bridge shelters in tents or at Golden Hall. Gentry said the hotels should be ready for occupancy in December.

Atwood Hotel owner Cathy Herrick, one of two hoteliers who had concerns about the project, said the new Hotel Circle housing could be a magnet for homeless people and hurt business at hotels already suffering from the shutdown caused by the COVID 19 pandemic.

Bravesh Patel, CEO of Hotel Investment Group, which includes the Hotel Iris and Holiday Inn Express on Hotel Circle South, had a different view.

“I found that the acquisition of the Residence Inn on Hotel Circle is a great move by the city in order to get these people the help that they need and also to get them the shelter we should be providing them,” he said about homeless people in the area.

Attorney David Boss challenged whether the hotel project complied with zoning regulations. While he said the city sees the project as continuing to be in compliance with the zone for visitor accommodations in Mission Valley, Boss pointed to a city code that designates a separate zone specifically for permanent supportive housing such as the proposed project.

Among speakers in favor of the project were representatives from the San Diego Housing Commission, Voices of Our City choir, the Climate Change Action Campaign and PATH.

Two speakers opposed to the project referred to it as a shelter, which Councilman Chris Ward later corrected to say it would provide housing, with individual rooms and kitchens like any other home.

John Brady of Voices of Our City choir noted that since the project was identified as housing, there would be no homeless people living inside.

Also on Tuesday, council members unanimously approved using an additional $5 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds to increase the city’s rental assistance program.

The city had allocated $15.1 million in CARES Act funding for rental relief, which was enough to provide one-time grants to 3,700 people. About 4,400 households were eligible for the program, however, and the extra allocation is intended to cover the gap.

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