For years, County of Orange officials have talked about creating 2,700 units of housing for homeless people, but have lagged behind that goal – yet that could soon change.

This week, county officials gave their full support to converting rundown motels into homeless housing with wraparound services – something they expect to reduce the burden on police departments responding crimes at the properties

Already, the county secured state funds – known as Project Homekey – to convert two Stanton motels into permanent housing.

Now they’re looking to convert three more motels – one each in Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Stanton – from the second round of Roomkey grants.

Most of the conversions so far are in Stanton, whose city manager said the two existing housing projects have markedly improved the local community.

“We are trying to do our part in building affordable housing, and so far it’s been successful,” said Stanton City Manager Jarad Hildenbrand in a Tuesday interview with Voice of OC.

“We’ve certainly seen a difference in the area, and crimes, calls for service have been reduced,” he added, noting the three planned projects would create 152 units of housing.

For years, local residents have complained to city officials about the rundown motels.

But the conversions are turning things around, Hildenbrand said.

“These high-crime motels [with] drugs, prostitution, are converted into housing and it benefits the community as a whole,” he said. “The motels have really been cleaned up. Fewer complaints from the adjacent neighbors.”

He also offered to teach other OC cities how to use the state-funded program.

“Any city in the county that wants to reach out to Stanton, [to] see what our playbook was, we’re happy to share it.”

And Stanton doesn’t want to stop here. 

Hildenbrand said the city is interested in converting all 9 motels in town into permanent supportive housing.

“We’ve just been thrilled with the outcome, and hope to replicate this model on the other motels we have in town,” Hildenbrand said.

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All five of the conversions planned so far are in the coastal 2nd District of Supervisor Katrina Foley, who said she marshaled city and county officials together in August for a meeting on how to apply for the funds and the benefits the conversions can bring cities.

“We shared with the mayors [and] the city managers or their designees how the Homekey project could benefit their communities,” Foley said at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting just before the grant application was forwarded unanimously by supervisors.

Like Hildenbrand, Foley also said Project Homekey partnerships are a way to alleviate resident concerns about the rundown motels.

The August meeting, she said, focused on “how we could partner together to renovate seedy motels that had been for a long time crime magnets and places that were not places for the community to be proud of – and turn that into housing – for seniors, for veterans and individuals experiencing homelessness.”

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who was an early prominent voice last year for the state to fund such conversions with COVID dollars, said the motel conversions are among the best things to come out of the coronavirus health crisis.

“If there’s anything good that’s come out of the Covid pandemic, it’s project Homekey,” Bartlett said during Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.

She said the proposed projects cover “all the bases,” from people who are homeless, at risk for becoming homeless, veterans and seniors.

Foley also said she expects the conversions to significantly reduce the number of police calls to the motel properties.

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In Huntington Beach, the motel up for conversion has alone been the site of 178 calls for service since the beginning of 2019, according to data the police department provided to Voice of OC.

This year, the calls were mostly trespassing or “general disturbances – either domestic or disputes between guests,” said Jennifer Carey, public information officer at the Huntington Beach Police Department.

Some of the calls were drug-related, warrants and arrests, she added.

The conversions are seen by county officials and homeless advocates alike as a way to more quickly create permanent supportive housing that helps stabilize homeless people and reduce taxpayer costs for emergency room care and law enforcement.

It comes as the county is just getting to first base on its goal set in 2018 of creating 2,700 new units of permanent supportive housing.

Just 375 units have been completed, with another 423 under construction, according to the regional agency overseeing their financing, the Orange County Housing Finance Trust.

The goal originally was to have the units built by this year, but that target was later pushed back four years to June 2025.

Additionally, county and city officials have underscored there’s a key need for longer-term housing for homeless people to go to after receiving mental health treatment, instead of their only option being the streets – which often worsens mental health.

The county is investing tens of millions of dollars in two mental health campuses, known as Be Well OC, though officials say it’s only meant as a temporary treatment center.

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The Homekey program has been well received by motel owners, said Heather Rozman, executive director of the Hotel Association of Los Angeles, the nearest countywide hotel industry group.

The LA and statewide hotel associations worked closely with state and local government officials to ​​support the Roomkey projects and identify properties that could be purchased and converted, Rozman said in an interview Tuesday with Voice of OC.

“Luckily it’s been a great opportunity to support our persons-experiencing-homelessness community as well,” Rozman added.

“A critical part of the success of these programs [is] really ensuring that the wraparound services like mental health and food services are all in place for the long term to make these programs really successful,” she said..

“[That’s] often what the broader community who often works on this subject is saying is a really critical part of the program.”

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

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