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Jasmyne Cannick: The Rise of the L.A. Motel Operator Slumlord

Old Grungy Motel Sign On the Road at Night
Old Grungy Motel Sign On the Road at Night 3D Illustration / Depositphotos

*L.A.’s newest class of slumlords have little oversight and are raking in taxpayer money hand over fist, with even more on track to be given to them thanks to programs like Project Roomkey and the newly created Inside Safe. So who exactly are these slumlords? First and foremost, they are the reason for the rise of the L.A. motel operator slumlord community. These are owner-operators of the motels in the parts of town where hotel chains refuse to operate.

It used to be back in the day that in L.A.’s poorer neighborhoods, motels were mostly for doing drugs in private, getting it on (usually with someone you were cheating with or didn’t want to or couldn’t be seen with), or both.

Today, thanks to L.A.’s homelessness and housing crisis, those same motels are more like apartment complexes full of studios that you overpay for by the hour, day, or week instead of the month.

In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom initiated Project Roomkey as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and people experiencing homelessness. Similarly, a component of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ Executive Directive Inside Safe also uses motels as interim housing for the unhoused who are willing to go indoors.

These programs didn’t create the problem, but they added to the gravy train that motel operators had already been riding on — one that was providing overpriced, substandard shady housing to a vulnerable population less likely to complain about the overt civil rights violations.

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Motel operators see people at one of the lowest points in their lives when they walk into their lobby looking for a room to live in. Whether they’re sex workers, families unable to find affordable housing, or, like me — a single working adult — if we’re looking for shelter in a motel, we are usually one step away from being unhoused on the street.

For far too long, the operators of motels in our communities have operated with impunity — not just from local government but from us as well. They’ve managed to get away with taking advantage of people experiencing homelessness by profiteering — charging more than they should be for their motel rooms. Because most people living in motels are desperate for housing — even substandard housing — they don’t report the motels.

For too many of these motel rooms, the only difference from being on the street is just four walls, a roof, and AC.

These rooms are filthy. Most of them look like the set of a 70s adult film. They have bed bugs. They have mold. They have roaches. They have rats — and that is just on the inside. Outside there’s usually an open-air drug market and sex trafficking taking place right within view of anyone — including children — who dares to pull back their curtains. The operators of the motels wouldn’t sleep in these rooms but have no problem charging you and me $150 and more a night too.

Guests risk being yelled at and spoken to rudely for asking for additional towels, toilet paper, or microwave use after hours — even if it’s to warm a baby’s bottle.

A grungy old hotel sign with birds perched on top stands above a colorful motel on the side of the highway.
Old Grungy Hotel Sign Above Highway Motel / Depositphotos

When evicted from my apartment over a decade ago, I was too embarrassed to tell even my closest friends. I put my stuff into a storage unit I couldn’t afford and put what I needed to get by in the trunk of my Mercedes. Then I drove to a motel in Gardena off Vermont Avenue and paid $300 for a week.

I remember being too scared to sleep in the bed because of bed bugs and bringing my cleaning supplies to clean the room as best I could before I moved my things into it. I remember arguing with the motel manager for additional towels and toilet paper. I remember the sex workers, the pimps, and the many other working adults like me living there.

Fast forward to last year when I was helping a mother in South L.A. who was engaging in sex work just so that she could pay the daily rent at a motel for her and her 5-year-old son.

I remember visiting her at the motel on Western Avenue once, and several men came out of a room near hers with guns, got into a car, and left. The room she was living in with her son was filthy — the kind of filthy that was there long before she ever checked in.

When I was trying to get a news story done on the woman’s situation to shine a light on another part of our housing crisis, I remember telling the television reporter, who was a white blonde woman, not to come dressed up to the motel because she would stick out. She tried to dress down, but it didn’t work because out came the motel operator wanting to know who were and why we were there.

Motel - Pexels
Motel – Pexels

Just like with our jails and prisons, it’s time for stronger oversight from government leaders of motels operating in Los Angeles — especially those motels being paid with taxpayer dollars. We should have ordinances that mandate that all motels provide fresh towels upon request to guests, and rooms must be cleaned daily upon request and not just when someone checks out.

The microwave should never be locked up. Guests should be able to go online and report motel operators for violations. Motel operators should be forced to live in the same conditions they provide for their guests and not their gated portion of the property. They should face hefty fines for violations, risk losing their license to operate, and be part of the city and county’s voucher program for multiple violations.

You don’t become less of a human being just because you are living in a motel.

Technically, we are the customers whether we are scrounging up the money on our own or the city or county is paying for us through a voucher. But when it comes to motel rooms in Los Angeles, the customer is looked down on, discriminated against, and disrespected. We wouldn’t accept that treatment from a hotel chain, so we shouldn’t accept it from motel operators in our communities — especially those paid with public money to care for our most vulnerable citizens.

Jasmyne Cannick
Jasmyne Cannick

Based in Los Angeles, Jasmyne Cannick is a Gen X award-winning journalist and on-air contributor from SoCal. She writes and talks about the collisions at the intersection of politics, race, and social issues.

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