OC could be seeing a massive expansion of a program to buy and convert motels into homeless housing with on-site support services.

Officials are gearing up for a major infusion of new state money for such conversions – known as Project Homekey – that would expand on their existing effort that converted two motels in Stanton.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is looking at setting aside $3.5 billion for Homekey projects in his new budget plan, county officials said Tuesday.

If OC gets a proportionate amount, that’s almost $300 million – many times more than the $21 million the county got last year to do the two Stanton motel conversions.

County officials are now asking cities, motel owners and developers if they’re interested.

The effort has gotten a warm response from county supervisors, who are final decision-makers on whether to seek funding and convert the motels.

“There’s certainly many opportunities to convert motels that are just crime magnets into motels that can serve veterans, families in need, singles – so that people can get stabilized and we can clean up our community,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

County officials have said their preference is to work with cities that support the motel-buying effort, and that they have backing from the leaders of several OC cities.

“I had a chance to tour the Stanton Homekey projects, with Mayor [David] Shawver and Jamboree Housing. And what they have done there is really just amazing – not only for the residents that now have stable places to live,” Foley said on Tuesday.

“And they’ve cleaned it up – it’s actually very much nicer than it was. But it’s also really made a huge difference in that corridor on Beach Blvd., in terms of helping people get off the streets and into shelter [and housing],” she added.

“So this is a really good model, and it really helps those communities that want to transform some of the – what I’m just going to refer to as seedy motels – into places where people can thrive and stabilize.”

Ultimately, it would be on the county to apply for the state grant money. In the past, county officials have sought much less state grant funding on homelessness than they’re eligible for – but have sought more in recent years after being publicly scolded about it by a federal judge.

Under OC’s existing $21 million Homekey projects, officials are converting the Stanton Inn and the Tahiti Motel into 132 affordable studio apartments expected to house 264 people starting in 2023.

The project is being developed by the non-profit Jamboree Housing Corp., one of the largest affordable housing developers in OC.

A local nonprofit, American Family Housing, will provide on-site services including meals, medical assessments and services to improve people’s physical and mental health, according to Stanton officials.

Steven Johnson, a 62 year-old resident at the Stanton Inn since September 2020, said Homekey changed his life.

“I was homeless for so long,” he said. “They took me in and now they feed me and protect me every day. I love it so much.”

Homekey has its origins in Project Toolbelt, the state-funded program that sheltered homeless people in motel rooms during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Officials have said no one is required to live in the Homekey motels.

“They are voluntary,” said Dylan Wright, who is helping oversee the motel purchases as director of Orange County Community Resources, at a county supervisors’ meeting last year.

“Do we just put people in supportive housing and then abandon them?” asked Supervisor Andrew Do.

Wright said no.

“The unique thing about supportive housing…is it comes with full wraparound services, so that there is full support of the individual living in the unit,” he said.

Last year, OC supervisors were pressed by activists and lawyers for homeless people to buy and convert motels. Supervisor Lisa Bartlett did advocate for it publicly at board meetings, and said she did the same in her capacity as the lead representative of counties in California.

Bartlett told Voice of OC last summer the county should “absolutely” pursue its share of the $900 million the state was offering in its first round the motel purchases and services.

“I think it’s a good idea to convert Project Roomkey hotels to [permanent supportive housing], but only in cities in locations where it’s appropriate,” Bartlett said.

“My goal is to help solve homelessness, not just spending dollars on financial band aids for the short term,” said Bartlett, who also served as president of the California State Association of Counties.

Despite that pressing, OC got much less than its proportionate share of the first round of Homekey money from the state.

The latest counts of the local homeless population – which are from more than two years ago – were that 7,000 to 10,000 people live without homes in Orange County.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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