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SF may spend $105 million on hotels for the homeless

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Lawmakers balk at $197-per-night price tag but insist they must move forward

People walking on a sidewalk in front of a building with banks of windows and a sign with a red logo that reads “Virgin.” Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

San Francisco’s plan to protect its thousands of homeless residents from COVID-19 hinges on securing thousands of hotel rooms so that they can shelter in place. Among the many pressing questions about this initiative is how much will it cost.

At a meeting of the Board of Supervisor’s budget committee this week, City Controller Ben Rosenfield laid out initial estimates about how many accommodations the city has lined up and how much City Hall should prepare to spend to house the homeless.

He said that SF hotels (all but vacant citywide) are presently providing 1,977 units, which he estimates will cost $35 million for a 90-day period. This includes not just the cost of the rooms themselves but also security, janitorial service, and other support that homeless residents may need in isolation.

But an even bigger bill sits on the horizon, as Mayor London Breed hopes to net some 7,000 units in all, which Rosenfield says will cost $105 million for 90 days.

The city may end up keeping people sheltered for longer than three months if needed, and SF lawmakers are pushing for more than 8,000 rooms—rather than 7,000—which will cost even more.

“We’re paying $197 per night?” asked Supervisor Hillary Ronen.

Ronen has lobbied for the hotel housing for weeks and seemed incredulous about the price, suggesting that it could be done for half that amount. Rosenfield stressed that the numbers are preliminary and costs could come down.

He also said that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will likely cover more than half the bill—potentially up to $55 million. Where to get the rest of the $50 million is “part of the puzzle we’re trying to get put together” the controller said.

State and federal funds for housing and emergency relief are available, but Rosenfield said that it’s too soon to know which sums the city would be allowed to spend for these purposes. Ronen pushed for appropriating $5 million worth of emergency housing money the city already has from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Supervisor Matt Haney, who, alongside Ronen has agitated for hotel shelters in recent weeks, defended the cost, arguing once again that the city would spend more treating homeless persons who get sick on the street or in crowded shelters.

“Yes, opening 8,000 hotel rooms to people so they can shelter in place is unprecedented. But so is telling everyone to stay home, and shutting down most businesses,” Haney tweeted.

SF Mayor London Breed previously seemed reluctant to fund and initiative the hotel proposal, but conceded this week after a competing plan for mass shelters at Moscone Center and the Palace of Fine Arts mostly fell through. Moscone Center will likely still house some homeless residents, but at a much smaller scale than once planned.

The hotels will go not just to the homeless but also to patients and healthcare workers from SF hospitals who need to be isolated away from hospital grounds. Early estimates bandied around a need for as many as 11,000 or 12,000 rooms eventually, but plans are changing on a daily basis.