Newsom: Cities blocking hotels for homeless will be ‘judged’ by history

A row of hotels and motels near Oakland airport on March 25. Gov. Gavin Newsom is encouraging cities to convert hotels into emergency housing to protect the homeless from COVID-19. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

By Matt Levin, CalMatters

As California scrambles to protect more than 150,000 homeless residents from contracting and spreading novel coronavirus, Gov. Gavin Newsom had some harsh words Saturday for cities he accused of blocking the conversion of hotels and motels for emergency housing.After toutingthe 10,974 vacant hotel rooms the state has acquired so far in a partnership with the federal government —roughly 4,200 of which are now occupied with homeless residents —Newsom charged some municipalities that have resisted the initiative with letting “not-in-my-backyard” politics interfere with a public health imperative.“I just want to encourage those cities that are blocking efforts like this to consider themselves in the context of others…to consider their actions in the context and annals of history,” said Newsom, speaking outside a Motel 6 in Silicon Valley that will be repurposed for the homeless. “They’ll judge themselves, not just be judged by others, by the extent they help the least among us.”While Newsom declined to name specific problematic cities and praised others he said were eager to participate, his remarks suggest that the state’s unprecedented effort to convert hotel rooms to homeless housing has run up against a barrier beyond even themassive logistical hurdlesof acquiring and staffing the hotels: political and legal challenges from local elected officials reluctant to allow COVID-19 positive and symptomatic homeless to be housed in their communities.Resistance to the hotel initiative has surfaced most publicly in Southern California. The cities ofLaguna WoodsandLaguna Hillsin Orange County, andLawndale and Bell Gardensin Los Angeles County, have mounted legal challenges to hotels that inked emergency deals with county governments.State, county and local governments across California havelong foughtover where homeless housing should be located, with few neighborhoods volunteering to devote land and resources to a population many residents associate with crime, mental illness and declining property values.

As the state prioritizes hotel rooms for the homeless who have tested positive for the virus or are symptomatic, a potent cocktailof fear is developing in some neighborhoods, say homelessness advocates.“What is at stake right now takes this outside the realm of a conversation aboutNIMBYism,” said Shayla Myers, attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “I think Gavin Newsom made the moral argument.”A spokesman for the League of California Cities, which represents municipal interests in the Capitol, declined to comment on Newsom’s remarks.Myers says that while she applauds Newsom’s rhetoric, homelessness advocates wish the governor would exercise more of the emergency powers granted to him during the pandemic to commandeer hotels or override zoning rules and other state and local laws cities use to mount legal challenges.“The governor of the state of California has extraordinary authority in this moment of time to take concrete steps to address this emergency,” Myers said. “He is not using that authority to protect unhoused residents of this state.”Beyond the admonishments to reluctant cities, Newsom on Saturday announced a partnership with Motel 6 that could include 5,000 more rooms in 47 motels across the state. While the state has negotiated a lease template with Motel 6, counties will ultimately determine whether to utilize the rooms

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