The Simone Hotel is, by most measures, a key part of the solution to downtown L.A.'s homelessness problem. Yet the city has ordered changes that may well put the Skid Row facility out of business.
The Simone is operated by the Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit group that seeks to find low-cost housing for the homeless. It already takes a surprising degree of care to maintain security for its residents, with someone posted at the entrance 24 hours a day.
Yet to the city of L.A.'s zoning administrator, that isn't nearly enough. The hotel, along with 11 other hotels and several other businesses (liquor stores, bars and markets), have been ordered to impose such draconian security measures as fingerprinting its tenants and their guests, hiring 24-hour security guards and installing video cameras.
"If we follow all the dictates, I don't think anyone would want to live here," said Michael Alvidrez, director of property management for the housing trust. "It would send a chilling effect through tenants, many of whom have some mental illness."
The dilemma faced by the Simone and other facilities like it is one of the most common, and troubling, of the effects of any city's attempts to clean up decrepit neighborhoods. Well-intentioned measures meant to decrease crime and other nuisances are sometimes so costly they end up shutting down the few facilities in the area for housing extremely low-income people.
Operators of the Simone and other Skid Row hotels are fighting back, but their fates are still very much open to question.
In what is said to be the largest blanket investigation the city has ever launched against a group of businesses, zoning officials began the Skid Row crackdown more than a year ago in an attempt to combat drug dealing, prostitution, public drinking and other illegal activities in the area.
The 17 businesses fingered as "nuisances" are mainly on Seventh and San Julian streets. They have all been ordered to take expensive steps to weed out loiterers and cut down on crime.
Nine businesses are appealing the zoning administrator's findings to the City Council, while the attorney for four of the hotels is preparing to file a federal civil rights lawsuit, having lost an appeal before the City Council. One of the targeted bars, Yankee Cocktails, has closed, while the owners of the Lyndon Hotel are considering selling. Another two hotels had milder conditions imposed because the problems were not deemed to be as serious, and the case against one bar was dropped.Kicking out the poor?
James Bonar, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, said the crackdown is part of a broader trend aimed at chipping away at residential properties on Skid Row, which is surrounded by the toy and garment districts and other businesses.
"If (the city's) agenda is what I think it is, they want to see the Skid Row community displaced," Bonar said. "The effort is aimed at changing the neighborhood by getting rid of poor people."
But the director of an area business association said the residential and business elements can co-exist if the former operate in an "above-board manner."
"This is long overdue," said Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Association. "All we're asking is they be good property owners, keep up their properties and control their tenants."
The most controversial conditions call for fingerprinting and photographing residents and visitors, video surveillance in the lobbies and forbidding tenants from taking keys outside the building. Other conditions include installing adequate outside lighting, removal of graffiti, daily disposal of trash and regular meetings between the business owners and L.A. Police Department vice unit officials for training and information.
"Most (single-room-occupancy hotels) seemed to be plagued by the same problems poor management, drug activity and people who were not registered guests in the rooms," said Associate Zoning Director Daniel Green, who imposed the conditions after spending several days on Skid Row to observe the activities there.
He said that, while cracking down on the 17 businesses won't turn around Skid Row, it's a start toward improving conditions and overcoming the "laissez-faire attitude that prevails in the area."
"A lot of what we're doing here could be characterized as taking drastic actions, but we wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't necessary," Green said. "There's too much of a policy of containment in too small an area."
Hotel operators, meanwhile, contend the city-ordered measures will not only invade residents' privacy, they will be financially prohibitive, forcing some businesses to close.
"It would mean we're out of business," said Andy Patel, whose family owns the Lyndon Hotel. "The ends aren't going to meet."
The security requirement would raise costs at the Simone Hotel by 25 percent and force rent increases that would put residents back onto the street, Bonar said. The hotel is appealing the zoning administrator's nuisance finding.
Officials from the housing trust, which operates 16 hotels in the Skid Row area, believe the 121-room Simone in no way meets the description of a nuisance. It was swept up in a well-intentioned effort to clean up Skid Row because of its location on a block with a high number of police incidents, they argue. The hotel provides permanent housing to the homeless and disabled, as well as case management and support programs to assist residents with addictions, disabilities and HIV.
"We see ourselves as part of the solution," Bonar said.
The trust argues that the zoning administrator made identical findings at all the Skid Row hotels and issued cookie-cutter rulings against them. While Green cited 38 arrest and investigation reports and 121 Fire Department responses at or in front of the Simone over the past two years, Bonar said the hotel is often blamed for illegal activities that occur on the street. Jennifer Ratner, an attorney with Sidley & Austin representing the Simone, said a city investigator reported the hotel is clean and well managed.
But Green said he carefully scrutinized arrest reports for the various hotels before imposing his conditions. He said he instituted the fingerprinting condition because sometimes people who have been arrested at the Skid Row businesses have had outstanding arrest warrants.
The hotels consume a disproportionate amount of city services, he added. The security measures he imposed represent "an investment in the business, rather than a penalty. City services are provided free," Green said. "In a dangerous neighborhood no one's saying it's suburbia it behooves owners to take on some responsibility and not accept what has become accepted."
Attorney Frank Weiser, who is representing four hotels, said several of the conditions go too far. Several of the hotels have been operated by the same owners for 20 years or more and have had no history of enforcement by the city, and much of the evidence is unsubstantiated hearsay, he said.The legal battle
The San Julian Hotel lost its appeal last week before the City Council and Weiser plans to file suit in federal court on the grounds the city-ordered measures violate several amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The other three hotels are still going through the administrative process at the city, but will likely also be included as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Weiser said.
"Even with properties that are claimed to be public nuisances, the city has to be careful in adhering to certain (constitutional) parameters," he said.
Not only has the crackdown pitted the hotels against the city, it has also created friction among Skid Row organizations. United Coalition East Prevention Project, a drug abuse prevention program, initiated the crackdown about two years ago by filing nuisance complaints against a dozen businesses.
Some hotel owners have questioned why properties owned by SRO Housing Corp., which is one of two host organizations of United Coalition, were removed from the list of nuisance properties prior to hearings.
Bud Hayes, executive director of SRO Housing, said when he heard his organization's hotels were part of a draft list, he simply called the city and asked what he had to do to get the properties removed. He was told he needed a letter from the Los Angeles Police Department saying the hotels were not problem properties. The police then conducted an investigation and produced such a letter.
"I didn't feel we got preferential treatment," he said.
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