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Here's How California Is Turning Hotels Into Housing for Formerly Homeless People

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Sonja Summerville Trotter looks out the window in her new studio apartment in downtown Oakland on July 29, 2020. Summerville Trotter was able to secure one of more than 11,600 hotel rooms through California's Project Roomkey, a program to help some homeless residents safely shelter in place during the pandemic. Alameda County officials were later able to move her into permanent housing. (Molly Solomon/KQED)

A motel, a mountain lodge and a village of  tiny homes are just some of the buildings that will soon become permanent homes to hundreds of formerly homeless people across California.

The projects are among 10 sites the state selected on Sept. 16 for its first round of funding, totaling $79.5 million. Officials in two of the counties receiving funds say the projects will functionally end homelessness in their jurisdictions. In another, it will be the county’s first homeless shelter.

All of the housing is part of Project Homekey, which draws from $600 million in mostly federal CARES Act funds to help California cities and counties convert hotels, motels, apartments and other buildings into permanent housing for formerly homeless people.

KQED’s new podcast SOLD OUT: Rethinking Housing in America explains how this program, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, can be like giving someone a prescription for better health. Listen to the first episode, “Hotel Corona,” to hear how.

Read a transcript of the episode.


Project Homekey is the second phase in California’s effort to house homeless people since the start of the pandemic.

The first phase, known as Project Roomkey, is an ongoing effort to temporarily house homeless people who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Since it began, over 22,000 people, or roughly 15% of the state’s more than 151,000 homeless residents, have stayed in hotel rooms.

Here’s how it has all happened:

  • March 25: Alameda County officials open a hotel for homeless people in Oakland to safely shelter during the pandemic, the first site in what will soon become an official, statewide program.
  • April 3: Two weeks after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, he formally announces Project Roomkey. The program sets a goal of securing 15,000 hotel rooms statewide for people experiencing homelessness. As of Sept. 16, cities and counties across the state had leased more than 16,500 rooms, of which, a little over 11,600 were occupied.
  • April 10: San Francisco Mayor London Breed announces that more than 70 people at the Multi-Service Center South, the city’s largest homeless shelter, have tested positive for COVID-19. The number soon grows to more than 100 residents and staff, prompting the city to transition more people from homeless shelters into hotel rooms. Advocacy organizations begin calling on the state to get more people into hotel rooms. Several groups eventually launch the No Vacancy California campaign to demand the state expand the program to the more than 151,000 homeless residents living here.
  • July 16: Project Roomkey becomes Project Homekey, a $600 million program that uses funding from the CARES Act for cities and counties to convert hotels into permanent affordable housing for formerly homeless people.
  • Sept. 16: The state awards the first $79.5 million for 10 sites in seven cities and counties, including Lake Elsinore, South Lake Tahoe, El Centro, Contra Costa County, San Jose, Kern County and Mendocino County.

For more in-depth reporting on the housing crisis, check out our new podcast, SOLD OUT: Rethinking Housing in America. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, NPR One, TuneIn or on your favorite podcast listening app.

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