Front of four story yellow building
The historic building on Harrison Street and Grand Avenue is slated to become a homeless shelter during the pandemic. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The pale yellow six-story building at Harrison Street and Grand Avenue, by Lake Merritt, has housed an eclectic array of tenants over the last hundred years.

Starting in the 1920s, it was a YWCA boarding house for “young working girls.” Later, it became a single-room-occupancy hotel called the Lake Merritt Lodge. Until last year, it was a dorm for international business school students who were shuttled to and from San Francisco on buses and limos.

Now, Alameda County is stepping in to purchase the property, along with a neighboring office building and parking lot, turning the site into a shelter for medically fragile homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic. The old lodge’s 92 rooms will be offered to individuals who don’t have COVID-19 symptoms but do have higher risks, like older adults or people with asthma or heart disease.

The sale comes as local advocates and officials are considering how to turn coronavirus emergency measures into programs that can support vulnerable residents beyond the pandemic. In April, the county and state started leasing hotel rooms through Project Roomkey, a state-funded program to get people off the streets during the crisis. But the temporary leases for these hotels, including three in Oakland, won’t help their current guests in the long run, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson noted at a board meeting on Tuesday.

At that meeting, without any discussion or fanfare, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved spending $23.3 million to purchase the former Lake Merritt Lodge with state and federal COVID-19 funding. According to a county staff report, residents would have access to on-site housing counselors, and behavioral health and substance use services.

“We decided to sell it to the county because they informed us they were going to use the building for the unsheltered,” said the building’s current owner, South Bay real estate developer Mahnaz Khazen. The county was already in talks with Khazen to buy the property before the pandemic, for use as a residential program for women and children. According to a county staff report, “these negotiations came to a stalemate over price.” Khazen reportedly asked for $31 million at the time.

The report attributes the eventual deal to the current downturn of the hotel market. Khazen said, however, that she turned down several other offers besides the county’s. “We wanted to do something good and give back — we enjoyed being in Oakland,” she said.

The building was used as an SRO-type hotel, under the names Lake Merritt Lodge and Merritt Hotel, for some decades before Khazen purchased the property in 2013 in a foreclosure auction. The historic property had “decayed” into “a disaster,” said Khazen, who poured money into renovations, reconstructing chandeliers to match old photographs she found of the original fixtures. She eventually rented it out as a student dorm for the Hult International Business School, which gave up its lease in 2019.

Naomi Schiff, an advocate for Oakland’s homeless community with ShelterOak, lives close to 2332 Harrison St. She and others have been “agitating” for the county to buy the property for at least a year, pressuring supervisors to pursue the purchase, she said.

“I noticed that one day they took the Hult name off the building. I kept my eye on it and realized it wasn’t coming back, so I started to think, well, this could be used for people who need housing,” said Schiff. Since affordable housing is so expensive to build new, Schiff said governments should try to scoop up existing buildings.

Schiff’s organization is scouting other vacant properties it thinks the county could buy. She said there’s a double opportunity now to address COVID-19 needs and create future affordable housing. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also suggested that counties could use remaining federal coronavirus funds to buy hotels, not just rent them.

“We know we have an enormous need, and not that many projects in the pipeline to build affordable housing,” Schiff said. “Every little scrap would be great. We have all these people under the freeway.”

People live in tents on the grass next to 2332 Harrison St., too. Among them is Nabou Dnaba, who said he’d be happy to see the big yellow building turn into a shelter.

Dnaba said he’s been living in tents in Oakland for four years, switching locations each time the police tell him to leave. He said they’ve come around recently, too, asking him and his neighbors to pack up.

“We said no — before you close this you need to get us some housing,” he said.

The county hasn’t specified how residents will be selected to live in the old lodge, but typically a set of approved social services agencies can refer eligible guests to Project Roomkey hotels.

County staffers noted in their report that the cost of the shelter program is the same whether it’s run out of a publicly owned building or a leased hotel. But operational costs will be lower at 2332 Harrison St. than at a hotel, saving the county $1.2 million a year. During Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Carson, the vice president of the board, said the county should think carefully about how to spend its remaining federal coronavirus funds, and focus on unsheltered and other vulnerable populations.

“At some point we’re going to run out of money on the [hotel] leases, and we’re going to have to make a decision on where people go. Some have been released, some into shelters. Very few have found long-term housing — there have been people who’ve returned back to the streets,” he said.

The Oaklandside contacted Carson to ask whether the board is looking into buying any other hotel buildings, but did not hear back.

The county said the old lodge will be ready for use, pending potential “tenant improvements,” once the sale closes.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.