Downtown hotel for low-income residents closing; city funds $500,000 to help tenants

Another downtown single-room occupancy hotel is expected to close this year, and the San Diego Housing Commission will spend up to $500,000 in an effort to keep tenants from ending up on the street.

“We have a housing crisis, a homeless crisis, and this is the right thing to do,” said Jeff Davis, chief operating officer for the Housing Commission.

The commission voted March 8 to allocate the money to help residents of the Plaza Hotel at 1037 4th Ave. relocate after it closes to be converted into a hostel/hotel that will offer low-cost lodging.

Single-room occupancy hotels usually have small rooms and are typically rented by people with low incomes.

The $500,000 is in addition to assistance the new owner, identified at the March 8 meeting as 1037 Fourth Avenue LLC, will be required to pay residents under the city’s single-room occupancy housing regulations.

The regulations call for the owner of such a hotel that is being converted or demolished to pay the equivalent of two months rent to residents who have lived there at least 90 days. Residents could receive up to $2,200, plus up to $210 in rent rebates from the owner under the ordinance.

Lisa Jones, senior vice president of homeless housing innovations at the Housing Commission, said staff members determined that the owner’s payments would not be enough to ensure resident could find equivalent housing.

The $500,000 allocation from the Housing Commission would provide about $2,700 for each unit if divided evenly among the hotel’s 185 rooms. Jones said the actual payments would be determined by the needs of each displaced person.

Greg Florey, who works the front desk at the hotel, said the Plaza is about 80 percent occupied.

The most expensive room at the hotel rents for $780 a month, plus $149 for an extra person, and the least expensive is $635 for a room that has no toilet or shower, he said.

The Plaza is one of 75 hotels on the Housing Commission’s list of single-room occupancy hotels in the city. They range in size from the 325-room Golden West Hotel at 720 Fourth Ave. to two small hotels that each have six units.

Together, the hotels have 5,068 rooms.

The list was revised after a 2015 study conducted by a third party contracted by the Housing Commission found 2,188 single-room occupancy units had been demolished.

A 2016 analysis of the city’s low-income housing stock conducted by The San Diego Union-Tribune found a greater number had been lost. The analysis found the city had lost 9,290 single-room occupancy hotel rooms since 2010, and more than 1,500 low-income rental units that had been converted to condominiums in that same time.

Last year’s count of homeless people in San Diego County found about 8,700 were living in shelters or outdoors. Housing commissioners feared that losing another single-room occupancy hotel could increase the number.

“This could have been very bad in terms of how it played out if we had not been watching,” Commission Ryan Clumpner said at the meeting.

Clumpner said it’s unclear what happens to people who are evicted from these hotels, and the new effort to help Plaza Hotel residents would be an opportunity to find out by tracking their progress as they searched for new homes.

People who have been at the hotel less than 90 days will not receive financial assistance, but will be eligible to receive technical assistance from the Housing Commission.

Inside the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, a notice by the front desk gives a phone number and a web address for the Housing Commission to help residents in their search for a new home.

“Nobody wants to move,” Florey said. “There are people who have been here more than 20 years.”

Warren Graham, 63, has lived at the hotel for 25 years and is one of three operators who work in what may be the last manually controlled elevator in the city.

“I’m very concerned,” he said about having to move. “It’s been my home for so long. It’ll be hard to find another place.”

The buttons to call the elevator to a specific floor no longer work, and tenants use a phone to call it to their floor.

“Elevator,” Graham said as he picks up a ringing phone. He shuts the door by rotating a boomerang-shaped handle and starts the elevator by pulling a large lever.

Florey, who keeps a few baseball bats behind him for security, said he stopped accepting nightly rentals in January and turns away inquiries for rooms about twice a day.

The hotel opened as the four-story Waldorf in 1908, and two more floors were added sometime before 1928, Florey said. Exploring the bowels of the building, he said he has discovered signs of a speakeasy and a possible dance floor in the basement.

An eight-story Waldorf Hotel was built next door in 1928, and Florey said the two buildings were joined as one in 1938 to make what then was called the New Plaza Hotel.

gary.warth@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @GaryWarthUT

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