One of the first projects funded by the state’s “Project Homekey” program, created to provide permanent supportive housing for homeless people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, may open right here in Alameda.
Since May, the Marina Village Inn, a 51-room hotel located along the Oakland estuary, has been used as a facility for enabling “high-risk” but asymptomatic homeless people to “isolate” safely. Now, the plan is for the County of Alameda to use federal and state money to buy the hotel and convert it into permanent housing for the homeless.
On August 4, the County Board of Supervisors authorized staff to begin negotiations to purchase the property from its private owner (a limited‑liability company called D S Hospitality, LLC). In addition, the County is known to have applied for a grant from the Project Homekey program to cover the purchase price.
A decision is expected in a couple of weeks. If the County gets the money, it’s possible that the converted hotel could begin welcoming its new residents by the end of the year, if not sooner.
But a host of questions remain about how the County will convert the Marina Village Inn from a hotel into housing for the homeless. Will it turn the place into a Single-Room-Occupancy hotel? Or will it perform the work necessary to provide truly “permanent supportive housing”– e.g., retrofitting individual rooms to accommodate stoves, sinks, mini-refrigerators and microwaves; updating electrical and plumbing systems to current code; and providing sound-attenuating insulation to prevent neighboring residents from disturbing one another?
Similar questions exist about how the County will operate the facility after the hotel has been renovated. Who will handle the custodial and janitorial work? Who will provide security? Who will perform building maintenance and repairs? Will the County arrange for support services like mental-health and substance-abuse assistance to those who need them?
The people and companies who live and do business near the Marina Village Inn include the owners of 178 condo units, the tenants of 82 units in the eight-story Panomar Apartments, and about 75 people living on their boats, as well as commercial enterprises like the Pacific Lighthouse dim sum restaurant. They’d like to know the answers to these questions – but the County has avoided communicating with them. The Project Homekey application for MVI might have some of the answers – it requires the applicant to submit, among other things, a development plan, an operating plan, and a description of services – but the County hasn’t released it to the public. Instead, County officials have kept the neighbors more or less in the dark about the entire project.
This much about the future is known: As a result of a bill recently passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor, the City of Alameda will have no say in the matter. As the City’s Planning, Building and Transportation Director Andrew Thomas succinctly put it in an email to the spokesperson for the neighbors, neither the Planning Board nor City Council has any “official role or decision-making power” over the Marina Village Inn conversion.
Given the lack of public disclosure, we’re not sure we’ve been able to get the whole story. But here’s what we’ve been able to piece together:
On April 3, Governor Gavin Newsom announced what he called “Project Roomkey.” Under this program, the state would give cities and counties funds to lease hotel and motel rooms for homeless people “most vulnerable” to COVID-19 – i.e., those 65 and older or with chronic health conditions who were living in homeless shelters or on the streets. The rooms would come with “wraparound support” such as meals, security, laundry and custodial services.
“Homeless Californians are incredibly vulnerable to COVID‑19 and often have no option to self-isolate or social distance,” the Governor said in a press release. “By helping the most vulnerable homeless individuals off the street and into isolation, California can slow the spread of COVID‑19 through homeless populations, lower the number of people infected and protect critical health care resources.”
One of those hotel/motels was the Marina Village Inn in Alameda. We don’t know why the County selected MVI, but on April 28 the County Board of Supervisors approved an “Occupancy Agreement” between the County and the hotel’s owners. Under the agreement, the County leased 51 rooms on a month‑to‑month basis. The daily rate for occupied rooms was $189 (which included meals); for unoccupied rooms, it was $99. The Agreement also gave the County the right to purchase the property for its “fair market value” as determined by an appraisal conducted and approved by the County. (According to the County assessor’s website, the current appraised value of the property is $9,276,000).
Building Futures, the non-profit organization that runs the Midway Shelter and Bessie Coleman Court at Alameda Point for homeless survivors of domestic violence, was contracted to provide case-management services at the Marina Village Inn. “When it became apparent that COVID was an issue for all of us in the community, we were very worried about the folks who were living on the street, the women in our shelters that were vulnerable because of chronic health issues and /or age, AND we were concerned for community members facing domestic violence and having nowhere to go,” Liz Varela, Building Futures executive director, told us. “The State and the County coming forward with this funding has been incredible.”
As of August 19, 47 rooms at the Marina Village Inn were occupied, according to Kerry Abbott, the director of the County’s Department of Homeless Care and Coordination. Occupants include women with children as well as the elderly.
At a June 30 press conference held in front of a motel in Pittsburg, Governor Newsom proclaimed that the “Project Roomkey” had been a success: since its inception, it had “moved” 14,200 people “off the streets” and “out of encampments.” (Advocates for the homeless were quick to point out that this represented less than 10 percent of the state’s homeless population – 151,000 people – in 2019.)
At the same time, the Governor announced a new program, which he called “Project Homekey.” Under this program, the state would give cities and counties funds to buy hotels, motels, and apartment buildings and convert them into permanent supportive housing for “people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness,” whom the state considers “inherently impacted” by COVID‑19.
A total of $600 million – of which $550 million comes from the federal government – will be made available for this purpose. The program generally will provide $100,000 per unit towards the purchase price, but applicants with “Tier One” projects – i.e., those that can be occupied as permanent housing within 90 days from the date of acquisition – can get a larger grant if they contribute matching funds.
The state began accepting applications for Project Homekey grants on July 22, and it intends to announce the successful applicants on a “rolling basis” beginning this month and continuing through the fall. The money provided by the federal government must be spent by December 30, 2020.
The Project Homekey program was authorized by a bill – AB 83 – signed by Governor Newsom on June 29. According to news reports, the legislation contained two provisions designed to “speed up” the process.
First, it exempted Project Homekey projects from certain local land-use laws.
If a private employer – say, Google – wanted to buy a hotel like the Marina Village Inn and convert it into employee housing, it would need to get the Planning Board and City Council to change the zoning to residential. Thereafter, it would need to submit its plans for the project for design review. And it might have to arrange for an environmental review as well.
None of this is required for Project Homekey projects. The new law states:
Any project that uses funds received from the Coronavirus Relief Fund for any of the purposes specified in subdivision (a) [which includes a Project Homekey project] shall be deemed consistent and in conformity with any applicable local plan, standard, or requirement, and allowed as a permitted use, within the zone in which the structure is located, and shall not be subject to a conditional use permit, discretionary permit, or to any other discretionary reviews or approvals.
Moreover, the bill goes on to provide that CEQA – the California Environmental Quality Act – does not apply to a Project Homekey project if certain conditions are met. Two of those conditions mandate – naturally – that all contractors performing renovation work pay “prevailing wages” (i.e., union wages) and employ a “skilled and trained workforce” (i.e., union labor).
Of the $600 million made available for Project Homekey grants, the state allocated $100 million to nine Bay Area counties. According to the Mercury News, this allocation has been oversubscribed: as of August 20, cities, counties, and non-profits in the Bay Area had submitted 29 applications seeking a total of $329 million.
The County’s Ms. Abbott didn’t respond to the Merry-Go-Round’s request to confirm that one of those applications was for the Marina Village Inn. Nevertheless, that is what the County has been telling City of Alameda officials, and we believe it to be true.
For the Marina Village neighbors, information has been hard to come by. Indeed, they know as much as they do only because of the persistence of one of them in pestering governmental, non-profit, and private sources. And that’s the other significant part of this story.
After the shelter-in-place order was issued on March 16, hotels and motels in the Bay Area largely closed down. But, beginning in May, Marina Village residents and pedestrians using the Bay Trail started noticing unusual activity at the Marina Village Inn: people were coming and going into the building (some by ambulance); uniformed guards appeared onsite; a fence went up to limit ingress and egress.
No public official had given the neighboring residents and business owners any heads-up about what was going on. So Nancy Shemick, a consultant for non-profit health-care and social-services organizations and a former Alameda County Public Health Commissioner who lives in Marina Village, decided to take the investigative lead. She did Internet research. She talked to the hotel manager, to Ms. Varelas of Building Futures, and to Ana Bagtas, the City’s Homeless Coordinator. And she tried contacting local politicians: County Supervisor Wilma Chan (who told her, “We’ll get back to you”); Councilwoman Malia Vella (who told her it was not a city issue), and Councilman Jim Oddie (who never responded).
Finally, Ms. Shemick decided to bring the matter to the attention of the Social Services Human Relations Board and the Planning Board. After she (and other Marina Village residents and business owners) read public comments at the Planning Board meeting on August 17, Mr. Thomas spoke up and informed the Board that “we only recently heard” about the County’s proposed purchase of MVI. He promised to get involved, but when he did, County staff informed him that, under AB 83, the City had no role to play in the project – an interpretation he verified with the City Attorney.
Mr. Thomas and Ms. Bagtas then backed the effort by the Marina Village “stakeholders” to set up a meeting with Supervisor Chan. Ultimately, the Supervisor agreed to meet, but she wanted to wait until she learned whether the County actually had received the Project Homekey grant. By that time, of course, the parameters of the project will have been set. Presumably, if the County gets the money, the Board of Supervisors will need to approve the MVI purchase at a public meeting – but that will represent the first, and only, time the Marina Village residents and business owners will have any input into the decision-making process. And who knows whether anyone on the Board will listen?
At the Planning Board meeting, Ms. Shemick applauded the decision to use the Marina Village Inn to shelter “high risk” homeless people during the COVID‑19 pandemic, and she praised the way the project was being managed. She also emphasized that she did not object to the idea of providing permanent supportive housing for the homeless at Marina Village.
The problem was, she didn’t know – because no one would tell the neighbors – how the County intended to renovate and operate MVI as a residential facility. “Our biggest concern is that we recognize that, particularly single-room-occupancy hotels in San Francisco and other places, if they’re not managed well, can really be problematic,” she said. “We certainly want to help the homeless in every way possible, but let’s do it in a way that is healthy and safe for everyone involved.”
We asked Ms. Shemick to elaborate, and she replied:
I support the idea of converting MVI to permanent supportive housing because we live in a compassionate society and I was taught at a young age that “The true measure of any society can be found in how we treat the most vulnerable.”
I want to make sure that this supportive housing program works by advocating for the necessary resources to increase the likelihood of its success. Part of that success is how well it is managed, thus improving harmonious co-existence with the neighborhood and being a model for other programs going forward.
Now, we suppose there are some who will be quick to condemn – or even demonize – Ms. Shemick and her Marina Village neighbors as NIMBYs more concerned about property than about people, simply for raising questions about the MVI project. But we hope that is not the response from County Supervisors and staff (when and if they decide to listen to the neighbors).
For the wellness center on McKay Avenue, Doug Biggs and the Alameda Point Collaborative convened a “community oversight group” that (Mr. Biggs told us) included neighborhood residents and members of the business association and prepared a “good neighbor operation plan” laying out “operation agreements, standards for notifications, and accountability for the project.” Would that Supervisor Chan and her colleagues see fit to take the same approach.
AB 83: AB83