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Area cities fight state plan to house homeless in hotels

LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the city of Norwalk April 28 directing the city to comply with state and Los Angeles County efforts to temporarily place homeless people considered vulnerable to the coronavirus in a specified local motel, allowing the county to use that motel’s 200 units under the state’s Project Roomkey. 

Project Roomkey, a plan unveiled by Gov. Gavin Newsom April 3 to quarantine homeless people with COVID-19 symptoms and vulnerable people in hotels and motels, has pitted some cities, including Norwalk, Bell Gardens, Lynwood and Lawndale, against the county. 

The county filed a lawsuit against Norwalk to quash a moratorium the city had placed on motels and hotels from contracting with the county. Under the terms of the moratorium, the claimed local control of permits and codes to rent rooms in motel and hotels despite the declared state emergency. The city had threatened to cancel business permits if owners ignored the moratorium.

But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Samantha Jessner sided with the county, ruling that housing vulnerable patients under Project Roomkey outweighed any harm the city could suffer and saying Project Roomkey was in the best public interest to save lives during the pandemic.  

Louis “Skip” Miller, with the firm Miller Barondness, represented the county in court arguing that the county’s arrangement with the motel was legitimate. 

Miller called the city’s to attempt to circumvent Project Roomkey “outrageous,” pointing out that the county had already contracted 250 hotels in the region, providing 2,500 units for homeless people possibly exposed to the coronavirus.  

He said the ruling should make other cities think twice. A July 2 hearing was scheduled to hear whether the county should be granted a preliminary injunction against the moratorium. 

Both Miller and Norwalk City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman argued their cases by phone due to social distancing restrictions and limited court activity related to the coronavirus spread.

The county’s complaint stated that under the California Emergencies Services Act, the state can order counties and cities to take action to protect people and property, and are required to follow directives. 

Norwalk City Manager Jesus Gomez said the hotel does not meet criteria for an assisted-living building, lacks fire safety codes, is 200 to 300 feet away from homes and within half a mile of two schools. Alvarez-Glasman criticized the county for not reaching out to the city in advance. 

Project Roomkey aims to provide 15,000 rooms throughout the state and increase its portfolio of facilities willing to work to safeguard the health of the needy in times of a declared global pandemic. 

Counties are in charge of finding available hotel or motel rooms. Miller argued that the governor’s order superseded any municipal ordinance against the plan and authorized the county to contract with hotels and motels. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized California to move forward with Project Roomkey, and committed to pay 75% of rental costs, while Newsom agreed to spend $50 million to accomplish 90 days of temporary housing for indigent people and $100 million more to cover food, sanitation and other services. 

Previously, the city of Bell Gardens had sued Chandu Pattel, the owner of a Quality Inn hotel, for engaging into a contract with the county to provide medical shelter and quarantine for symptomatic and COVID-19 infected homeless people.

The city declined to attend a Project Roomkey hearing conducted by U.S. District Court Judge David. O. Carter on April 23. Carter ruled last week that the county supersedes any moratorium or local ordinance related to housing the homeless to avert and control further contagion.

In a statement, Bell Gardens City Manager Michael B. O’Kelly blamed the county for opening a medical sheltering facility “without the opportunity for public discussion and without specifics related to operational protocol.”

O’Kelly said the city assigned two police patrols and personnel to monitor activities at the hotel, gathered comments from residents and stakeholders, and shared information with the county. 

The city of Lynwood last week enacted a resolution banning hotels and motels from providing temporary shelter to homeless without obtaining approval from the city government. 

A report prepared by Lynwood’s Community Development Director Michelle G. Ramirez cited the California Government Code Section 8634 to claim “the importance of local control during this emergency period of COVID-19,” and to safeguard the health and safety of its residents, business owners and operators. 

In a statement, Mayor Aide Castro said the city adopted the urgency ordinance to claim municipal control of the facilities used to combat the pandemic. 

“We are asking the county to respect our community and not impose any program without first considering the existing homeless in our community and the safety of our residents,” Castro said. “We do not want to be overwhelmed by the homeless population of more affluent areas.” 

Norwalk had resisted the county’s efforts to secure temporary emergency housing by enacting legislation “directly contrary to, and in violation of [Gov. Gavin Newsom’s] declaration of an emergency and his issuance of executive orders,” according to the county’s petition that was filed April 23.

On April 21, Norwalk officials directed a participating hotel to withdraw its contract with the county and threatened to take immediate action to revoke its permits, business licenses and other municipal entitlements, according to the petition.

At an emergency meeting of the Norwalk City Council that same day, the city enacted an ordinance asserting local control over land use and related activities during the current state of emergency, the suit says.

The county’s petition described the ordinance as “a self-described moratorium with the express purpose to prohibit owners and/or operators of hotels and motels located in the city from converting or utilizing businesses or properties for homeless housing purposes or uses for COVID-19 housing or related uses or purposes without prior city approval.”

In his court papers, Alvarez-Glasman said the city was not trying to block the county’s efforts to help the homeless considered vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“The city has not taken any court action to restrain or block the county’s efforts,” Alvarez-Glasman wrote. “The city is making a reasonable request to have a seat at the table with the county and hotel/motel property owners to ensure important safety, building, land use, zoning and [environmental] impacts are addressed.”

Lawndale in the South Bay area has notified the county of its plans to impede motels from sheltering symptomatic or sick homeless with COVID-19. 

In Whittier, residents angry at a DoubleTree hotel that agreed to provide temporary shelter to homeless forced the county to withdraw from its plan to enlist the facility.

City News Service also contributed to this story.

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer