Yellow hotel building against blue sky
The Comfort Inn in East Oakland is one of Alameda County's hotels for homeless people who test positive for COVID-19. Credit: Pete Rosos

Alameda County will lease three more hotels to shelter unhoused people during the pandemic, with the option to eventually buy some of the buildings to use as permanent supportive housing.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on June 30 to enter into a $24.5 million, six-month contract with five hotels in Oakland and Berkeley to temporarily house homeless people who’ve tested positive for coronavirus or those who have medical conditions that put them at a greater risk from the disease. 

Two of the hotels, Radisson Hotel and Comfort Inn & Suites in East Oakland, were originally leased by the state, but those contracts are set to expire this month so the county will begin renting the sites directly. The other three hotels, Days Hotel in Oakland and Berkeley’s Quality Inn and Rodeway Inn, are new contracts that start this month.

“One of our goals has been to have more geographic diversity,” said Kerry Abbott, who runs the county’s Office of Homeless Care & Coordination. “We’re really excited to have some locations in Berkeley.”

Currently, the Oakland hotels, which also include another Quality Inn, are all clustered around the Oakland Airport.

The hotel program is part of California’s Project Roomkey initiative. State and local governments can rent out hotels and motels with coronavirus emergency funds, and get 75% of the cost reimbursed by the federal government. Some of the rooms—198 in Alameda County, including at Comfort Inn and Quality Inn Oakland—are reserved for unhoused people who test positive for the virus or have had direct exposure to it. Another 663 rooms, including at Radisson and all the new sites, are available to medically fragile people who are homeless. 

“Probably more than half of our homeless population would be eligible for those rooms,” said Abbott. An estimated 8,022 people in Alameda County live in shelters, cars, or on the streets. The Project Roomkey hotels reserved for vulnerable residents who haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 have been at capacity since they opened.

“This is an opportunity for people to shelter in place,” said Abbott.

It’s also an opportunity for hotels to earn income while the tourism industry has ground to a halt. The county will pay $24.5 million total, or between $2 million to $11.4 million to each hotel, at daily room rates of between $99-$189 plus meal costs. The leases are month-to-month and the county estimates they’ll last six months.

“We are just trying to survive the pandemic and we saw an opportunity to help the county by housing the vulnerable and mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” said Amit Motawala, who owns Days Hotel in Oakland. 

As part of the agreement between the hotels and the county, owners are required to bring back all the staff they laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic. They’re also required to either provide workers with healthcare benefits or pay them higher wages, according to county staff. Some workers wanted to see guaranteed health care for everyone, however. 

“It’s very critical that workers be protected when they are coming in contact with people who might have been exposed to COVID-19,” said Sonya Karabel, of Unite Here Local 2850, a hospitality workers’ union, at the Board of Supervisors meeting.

The county’s contract with Days Hotel is one of four that include an option for the county to purchase the building in the coming months. 

Abbott said the county had already converted some commercial or residential hotels into supportive housing sites before the pandemic, but there’s now an unprecedented number of additional hotels available for purchase. The county also recently purchased a 92-unit building by Oakland’s Lake Merritt for immediate shelter and long-term housing.

In his June budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom included $1.3 billion in funding for the new “Homekey,” a grant program allowing counties to apply for funds to buy up hotels, vacant apartment buildings, and residential care facilities to create housing for people experiencing homelessness. 

But some policy experts are skeptical that Homekey will succeed, because individual cities have to sign off on counties buying the hotels within their borders, and because the program uses federal emergency funds that must be spent by December 31. Counties will need to close deals—with the blessing of cities like Oakland and Berkeley—in the next five months. 

In the meantime, Alameda County is trying to funnel as many people as possible from the Roomkey hotels into permanent housing now. Abbott said 60 of the hotel guests have already been set up with housing, and another 40 are in line for units that become available. However, many also have ended up back in shelters or sleeping on the streets, because the hotels for COVID-positive residents only allow a short quarantine stay until people recover. 

short, long white building with a parking lot and palm trees
The county could eventually buy the Radisson Hotel in Oakland to use as permanent supportive housing in the future. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland homeless advocates take matters into their own hands

While the county was in negotiations with hotel owners, some unhoused residents and advocates decided to set up their own independent hotel housing program, which they say gives residents more freedom and dignity and avoids bureaucratic delays.

“The feedback we were getting from folks—advocates and people trying to get into [the Project Roomkey] program—was it was too hard to figure out how to get in and the barriers were too high,” said Needa Bee, the founder of The Village Oakland, an unhoused community. Bee said there are plenty of people who have medical conditions that put them at risk for the coronavirus but who don’t meet the county’s qualifications for medically vulnerable residents.

Those who have gotten placed in Roomkey hotels have not all had positive experiences, Bee said. Because residents are constantly supervised, can’t cook their own food, get meals slid under their doors, and cannot come and go at will, it feels to some like Roomkey is “run like a prison,” said Bee, who has experienced homelessness herself. Housed people are told to shelter in place but are allowed to move about the world and make their own decisions, unlike the homeless people living in the hotels, she said.

Representatives of The Village, along with the East Oakland Collective and Love and Justice in the Streets, said they have already set 45 people up in hotel rooms through an effort they’re calling “Hotels Not Graves.” A majority of the people they’ve served are Black, a group that’s been disproportionately affected by both the homelessness and coronavirus crises.

The groups said they are partnering with two Oakland hotels, but are not revealing the locations because of privacy concerns. 

A crowd-funding effort has brought in almost $135,000, and the East Bay Community Foundation also provided a grant, Bee said.

The rapid progress people make after moving into the hotels is striking, Bee said, so the groups try not to “exit” anyone who doesn’t have guaranteed housing when they leave.

“We know it would be so deeply traumatizing to exit them from this place of stability back to a tent,” she said.

That said, Hotels Not Graves does have rules—they’re just far less strict than the county’s. Some people have been kicked out for violating them, Bee said. 

Others—especially families who don’t have access to Roomkey spots—are happy for the private space.

In a video by the campaign, an unhoused mother named Kay, who’s staying in a hotel with three kids, said, “We’re able to have a nice, peaceful sleep, we’re able to not worry about our things being stolen, and we’re able to get showers on a regular basis.”

As for the county’s desire to purchase some hotels for long-term housing, Bee said she thinks it is “a great idea that should have happened already.”

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.