Utah religious leaders call on governments to purchase underused hotels for the homeless

With big investments in homelessness and housing on both the federal and state level, members of the Coalition of Religious Communities say it’s time for big ideas.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Palmer DePaulis and Pamela Atkinson at the 10-year anniversary of Palmer Court in Salt Lake City on June 13, 2019. The Coalition of Religious Communities is calling on governments to use an influx in state and federal cash to purchase underused hotels and motels for the homeless.

An “unprecedented” influx of state and federal cash for homelessness and housing is expected to flow into Utah this year — something members of the state’s religious community see as an opportunity to radically reduce the number of unhoused people in the state.

Their “big idea” for how governments should spend the money? Buy underused motels and hotels and convert them into permanent supportive housing for people who don’t have shelter.

“We’re in a time where the hotel industry is distressed,” noted Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, in outlining the concept during a panel discussion on Thursday. “There are people who might welcome the opportunity to get out of the business. So it makes [sense] and it’s being done in other places.”

The concept is already playing out in Oregon, he noted, which last year announced it was purchasing 20 motels with the goal of moving 2,000 people out of homelessness. It also wouldn’t be new to Utah, which is home in its capital city to Palmer Court, a retrofitted hotel for previously unsheltered individuals that opened in 2009.

That development had an “immediate” and “positive impact” on people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City, noted David Litvack, a senior policy adviser in the Salt Lake City mayor’s office who joined the interfaith group on Thursday to discuss its funding ideas.

“So we know the tremendous impact that this can have,” he added.

The panel discussion came the same day that President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, which contains nearly $50 billion in housing and homelessness assistance — including about $27 billion for rental assistance and $5 billion in emergency housing vouchers for people who are homeless, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Tibbitts said Utah is expected to receive around $13.2 million of those funds.

The Utah Legislature has also allocated its own money for homelessness and housing in recent days, putting $50 million toward those efforts during this year’s legislative session. The state’s philanthropic communities are expected to put an additional $730 million toward that cause.

“With the $50 million towards housing and homelessness and of course what we’re anticipating for Salt Lake City with the federal relief dollars — the new dollars — it is an unprecedented opportunity to really ... make a tremendous impact,” Litvack said.

The idea of purchasing underutilized hotels and motels for the homeless with that money was one of four concepts the Coalition of Religious Communities floated in a letter to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday.

The interfaith group also called on state leaders to identify best ways of using housing vouchers through the American Rescue Plan Act “so that we are ready to act when they become available”; to expand the state’s ability to provide case management to people experiencing homelessness by adding those services to Utah’s state plan for Medicaid “in the quickest way possible”; and to set “clear goals” around reducing child homelessness.

But most of the conversation during Thursday’s virtual panel focused on the establishment of hotels and motels as permanent supportive housing — something Erin Litvack, Salt Lake County deputy mayor and chief administrative officer, said has been of interest to county leaders.

“The hotel idea is an incredible idea and one that the county has contemplated,” she said, adding that it wasn’t possible to do with past COVID relief dollars due to the previous administration’s rules about use of the federal funds.

“In exploring that opportunity before, there is a lot of hotel inventory that’s on the market to consider,” she said. “And I know a number of our housing authorities are looking at it. I know a number of nonprofits that are looking at that opportunity.”

Ongoing conversations about the concept among county leaders center on whether such a purchase would be the proper role for the government entity, which does not currently own housing facilities. But Litvack said Salt Lake County is open to considering the option and to looking for creative solutions to address the state’s affordable housing crunch.

While the government leaders who appeared on Thursday’s panel seemed to agree that the purchase of motels or hotels for permanent supportive housing would be a helpful solution, they cautioned that there would likely be obstacles to making that vision a reality.

David Litvack, with the Salt Lake City mayor’s office, said there need to be conversations about how to ensure there’s access to case management and other wraparound services at these facilities, and he noted that zoning could also pose problems to converting these sites.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This Dec. 10, 2020, file photo shows Salt Lake City police removing homeless camps near the Rio Grande area.

“It’s not just a matter of having the funding,” he said. “We also have to work with local governments across the state to make sure that the support is there, that the right rules and laws are in place to allow for that advancement.”

State and local leaders would also likely have to fight off a “Not in My Backyard,” or NIMBY, mentality among people who don’t want to see permanent supportive housing in their community, noted Tricia Davis, homelessness program manager for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

That’s an important part of the conversation, because these converted motels can’t be located only in Salt Lake City, which has often borne the brunt of addressing homelessness in the county, Erin Litvack argued.

“This isn’t about just buying hotels in Salt Lake City to solve this issue,” she said. “This has to be a communitywide engagement and endeavor.”

One problem Tibbitts said he doesn’t anticipate is that state or local governments would be unable to fill the beds at a converted hotel or motel.

“When I started working at Crossroads Urban Center, there were people I saw who were camping on the street every day, and I saw them for years,” he said. “And then we started building permanent supportive housing, and almost all of them ended up moving in.”

There may be a fraction of people who say “no” to shelter or treatment at first, he said. But once they can be convinced to move into housing, “they’re able to heal in ways that they become open to other types of services,” he added.

“If we want to treat people like human beings, if we want to act like they have human rights, we need to create places where it’s safe and legal for them to sleep,” he concluded Thursday.