Motel owners see altruism and opportunity in sheltering the homeless

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Joe Patel has a vision for using motels to stem the homelessness crisis, and he’s on a mission to make it real.

Patel grew up in a motel in Mid City. His parents, originally from India, had made their way to Los Angeles and, like family members before them, bought a motel. In his youth, Patel cleaned rooms, checked guests in, and watched his tiny immigrant mother deal with the ne’er-do-wells.

Today Patel is pushing to turn the city’s stock of aging roadside motels into transitional or permanent housing for the homeless. A real estate and finance executive, he started a company specializing in affordable housing. Patel spends his days convincing his second-generation, motel-owning, compatriots to do what he has done: lease their entire motel to a homeless social service provider.

Patel came to idea of converting his motel to homeless housing when he met Reverend Richard Reed, founder of a social service organization called First To Serve. As the homelessness crisis escalated, Reed struggled to find beds for people.

Empty motels like this one could potentially become homeless shelters. (Photo by Matt Rogers)

In 2017 Patel leased his Mid City childhood motel to First to Serve. Now every one of the 16 rooms is occupied by a homeless woman.

After Patel graduated from from college and started building his career, he had to decide what to do with the motels his family owned. He didn’t particularly want to run any himself.

“There’s a lot of us that are second generation property owners that have these kinds of buildings [and] they don’t really want to go down and run the motels again, waiting for the customer to check in, you’re waiting for somebody to show up that evening to rent that room. They’d rather have someone else run the motels.”

For this younger crop of motel owners that “someone else” is usually a relative or another immigrant from India. But Patel saw a different need in the community. A growing number of clients of his motels were homeless, scrambling their last dollars together to pay for a night off the street. It gave him an idea.

“If we can get a credible housing provider to take over the day-to-day operations, relieve the owner from the burdensome operational side of it, it creates units for them that are vacant and at the same time for the owners it creates a stable income.”

After a few repairs and upgrades, Patel went from owning a motel which was often only half full, to a monthly payment for every one of the 16 rooms. He made less per night, but the guaranteed income made it worthwhile. And he was relieved of the daily tasks of running the motel.

Rev. Reed (Photo by Matt Rogers)

For Reed, converting motels is one way to help ease the crisis. “Right now there’s a big crisis in LA and the numbers are up with those that are losing residence, those that are homeless,” he said. “So you’re seeing more people on the streets, you’re seeing more people in RVs, you’re seeing more people just in tents and things of that nature.”

Reed said that as he passed motels, he wondered if he could convince the owners to shelter a homeless family.

“We had meetings with multiple hotel owners, let them know type of services we [provide], how long we have been serving in the community,” Reed said.

Motel resident, Cameo Watkins (Photo by Matt Rogers)
A sign crafted by Cameo Watkins in her motel window. (Photo by Matt Rogers)

Darlene Hernandez has lived in one of Patel’s converted motels run by First To Serve for 10 months. A single mother with two teenagers, Hernandez worked as a warehouse clerk, until one day her company went into bankruptcy and laid her off. She couldn’t immediately find another job, couldn’t pay her rent and before she knew it was homeless.

“We were in a three bedroom and from being happy and successful we went to being homeless and with nothing,” said Hernandez.

She and her children were placed at the South LA converted motel by First To Serve.

“The biggest biggest challenge of being homeless, [is] that you have no control over your own person, your family,” Hernandez said. “You know you have to follow rules, you have to follow a curfew, no visiting, there’s many limitations.” Yet, “it’s a shelter, its a roof over our heads, so I’m ok with that.”

First To Serve says keeping an eye on visitors can prevent some of the residents from falling back into drug habits or behaviors that may have contributed to the homelessness in the first place. They also provide a lot of support, key to helping the homeless move to more permanent housing. There’s a full staff on site every day at the motel. Residents are provided with counseling and basic toiletries. And because the rooms don’t have kitchenettes, First To Serve has a dining room on site where all residents are served three hot meals a day.

As the homeless crisis was escalating, City Atty Mike Feuer heard about what Rev. Reed and Joe Patel were doing, and he saw the potential for moving people off the streets. He wanted formalize the idea.

“We have an emergency, let’s think about what the world should look like and make it possible for motel owners to transform their properties,” Feuer said.

In April the City Council passed an ordinance that makes this possible.

Yet since the ordinance passed no motels have pursued conversion. “There is nobody quarterbacking the deal,” Patel said. He believes there should be a lead agency that negotiates the conversions.

This feeling was echoed by other owners around Los Angeles.

Owner operator of the Palm Tree motel in North Hills, Mike Patel said he already has half his rooms occupied by homeless families and is paid by vouchers from families sent by homeless service provider LA Family Housing.

However, “we have to serve our own customer, too,” he said. He’s not persuaded that giving over all his rooms to house the homeless is a better business model.

In Mid City Warren Valdry has run the Edmar Motor Inn for 40 years. He has homeless people renting his rooms “all the time, nightly.” Valdry said he’d convert his motel if the terms are right. He said no one has been in a position to negotiate a deal with him. Like Joe Patel, he wishes there was a single person or agency leading this motel to homeless-housing conversion process at the city.

City Attorney Feuer said he is optimistic the program will succeed. “It’s very early, the Ordinance just passed, Feuer said. “There are motel owners now who are in discussions, already, to take advantage of this ordinance and the program that funds it.”

If the plan succeeds , it might rapidly provide desperately needed beds for the homeless. Los Angeles has hundreds of motels which adds up to thousands of beds. That’s a lot of shelter for those who don’t have any.

It’s also a way for a generation of small business owners to actually retire with a monthly income to live off, said Joe Patel. “Motel owners don’t have a formal 401k plan,” he said. “The income on these properties is our 401k Plan.”

This story was produced with support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.