Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
Deacon Jim Vargas, CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, has audacious plans for local motels. But will owners be willing to sell?
HOSPITALITY, n. The virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain persons who are not in need of food and lodging.
In a city where the word “bold” rarely materializes except for during spectacular sunsets, the folks at Father Joe’s Villages went for the gusto last week when they announced an initiative to boost its permanent housing for the homeless by 2,000 units in just five years.
The declaration, after a year of planning, drew immediate praise from city leaders. “Father Joe’s Villages has a long history of providing much-needed housing and services to homeless men and women,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer gushed in a statement Thursday, “and it continues to bring new ideas to the table with today’s bold announcement.”
The price tag for the plan is a doozy—$531 million—and by most measures would be the largest frontal attack on the region’s mushrooming homeless crisis in local history if successful.
Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s, said the decision to go big came during a board retreat last year. “We decided on that day that we are at crisis proportions here,” Vargas said in an interview last week. “When the numbers are 8,700 men, women and children on the street [countywide], we said we need to have a plan that’s commensurate with the gravity of the situation.”
When it was decided to set a goal of creating 2,000 new housing units for the homeless in five years, Vargas acknowledged there was “no meat” to the plan. “You have to have a vision,” he said, “and we all looked at one another and said, ‘OK, now let’s see how we can make this happen.’”
According to accounts from people who were given a preview of the proposal, it initially was a downtown-focused initiative—hundreds of new permanent-housing units built on property owned by Father Joe’s Villages. When the downtown community, already flush with homeless services, pushed back, the plan—known as “Turning the Key, Unlocking a Brighter San Diego”—was broadened beyond downtown’s borders.
Vargas would only say that his organization heard “the feeling of frustration in the community as it relates to the numbers getting higher and the feeling that there’s so much downtown that we can’t just focus downtown.”
Then a light bulb switched on. “That’s when we started looking at motels and thinking about how we could refurbish them and put them online,” Vargas said.
With the help of low-income-housing developer Chelsea Investment Corp. of Carlsbad, a financing plan was created that proposed building 760 new supportive housing units on property downtown and purchasing and converting 1,240 motel rooms countywide to permanent housing.
A San Diego Union-Tribune story on the plan made reference to the “17 hotels and motels” that Father Joe’s would like to own and convert, but Vargas said, “We’re not focused on hotels. It’s motels.”
Other cities, including Los Angeles, are attempting similar reuse initiatives, turning motels, abandoned schools and hospitals into homeless living quarters. So the idea is not new, and as Vargas noted, “It’s not rocket science. It’s just a matter of saying at the end of the day we need affordable housing. It’s not that we’re saying let’s move away from transitional housing or emergency shelters. But if we don’t have the front doors, these individuals will ultimately wind up on the street again.”
Vargas said his hope is that Father Joe’s can acquire two motels this year “so that in the first half of next year we can start having people move in to them.” A generous benefactor, he said, has stepped up for the purchase of the first motel.
Just where that is, Vargas won’t say. It’s not that the Bronx native is being cagey, he explained, but rather it seems he’s aware of real-estate speculators and the problems that could arise in a bidding war. “We have a couple of sites we’re focusing on for the first motel, but now is not the time to say because it hasn’t been finalized,” he explained.
Vargas did describe what his organization is looking for when it comes to motels: access to public transportation, a complex of anywhere from 50 to 75 rooms and additional space for supportive services. Ideally, it would be a troubled motel that neighbors would support converting.
“I’d be foolish to ignore the NIMBYism and pooh pooh it away,” Vargas said. “I may be crazy, but would they rather have these individuals housed, or do they want them to continue to be on the streets?”
But the biggest challenge may be finding motel owners willing to sell. David Latham, general manager of Hitching Post Motels Inc., a family-owned string of seven motels in San Diego including several along El Cajon Boulevard, might be instructive.
Latham said the plan “sounds like a reasonable thing if someone else wants to do it—that’s not me. I’m happy doing what we’re doing.”
He said the proposal might have had a better chance 20 or 30 years ago when many motels focused on daily rates and some ran into trouble with police over drug dealing and prostitution. “But times have kind of changed,” he said.
Latham said motels have become, in many instances, the last refuge for people who can’t afford San Diego’s exploding apartment rents and the additional expenses they require, including large security deposits and utility costs.
“The people who live at our properties are there relatively long-term. We got out of the overnight business 30 years ago,” Latham said. “When you get out of the short-term business, you get away from the legal problems. That’s a benefit.”
If motels are converted, Latham wondered what would happen to those long-term renters. “If you kick out one set of homeless people to make room for another,” he said, “that might work out in the long run, but in the short run you might have a transitional problem.”
Deacon Vargas didn’t have a direct response to that issue, but an official with the San Diego Housing Commission, which last month approved a plan to convert a Motel 6 in Grantville to permanent homeless veterans housing, suggested tenants there contact a service provider “such as Father Joe’s Villages…”