The Americania Hotel at 121 7th St. is one of the many hotels the city has under contract. Trip Advisor rates vary from $75 a night to more than $300 a night. Tuesday, April 14, 2020 Photo by Lydia Chávez

The shelter-in-place hotels housing San Francisco’s homeless population — which the city was moving to empty and close in November — now stand to be 100-percent funded by the federal government.

President Joe Biden on Thursday directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to completely reimburse cities and states for a slew of emergency services they set up during the pandemic. That includes the 2,300-odd hotel rooms San Francisco obtained for vulnerable homeless residents to safely shelter during the pandemic. 

“FEMA shall make assistance under this section available at a 100 percent federal cost share until September 30, 2021,” states the memorandum.

City officials are left to parse the memorandum and place calls to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to figure out whether this is good news — or great news. 

Much hinges on whether Thursday’s move is retroactive, which is not yet certain. If so, says Supervisor Matt Haney, it would be tantamount to a federal stimulus payment to San Francisco the tune of “tens of millions of dollars.” 

This would bring about “huge consequences for our entire budget,” continued Haney, who now chairs the board’s Budget and Finance Committee.  

Sources within the Mayor’s Office say that the Controller and Mayor’s budget director are currently scouring over the directive and may have a clearer idea early next week about whether the reimbursements are retroactive — as well as whether any eligibility requirements have changed, and just how this will affect the city’s bottom line. 

True clarity may also require additional details from the White House and FEMA. 

Both city and federal officials, however, confirmed to Mission Local that the president was authorized to initiate this move without Congressional approval via the Stafford Act.

Regardless, the city officials who championed the hotel program see this as not only as an opportunity to keep it going, but to expand it — especially as Covid-19 is more prevalent than ever in San Francisco. 

“Now we can open more spots for people experiencing homelessness to stay safe during the rest of this pandemic,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen, a proponent of the hotels, tweeted on Thursday following the announcement. “Can’t wait to work with Federal & State leaders on permanent fixes to homelessness.”

As recently as November, the city’s Human Services Agency announced that it would begin slowly moving homeless residents out of hotels, fearing the federal government would discontinue funding. There are also concerns on where to place people when the program expires.

The program was allowed to continue, however, thanks to a commitment from FEMA in December to reimburse municipalities 75 percent of the costs for the “duration of the Covid-19 emergency” — as well as emergency legislation by the Board of Supervisors to keep homeless residents in the hotels for as long as the federal government was willing to pay. 

Haney said that the additional funding would probably trigger another discussion on the board about how to take more people off the streets and give them hotel rooms. And, quite possibly, spark a conflict. 

In April, the board unanimously passed legislation directing the city to obtain 8,250 hotel rooms, with 7,000 earmarked for the homeless. Mayor London Breed, as is her prerogative, disregarded this legislation. 

“You’re likely to see another round of fighting over something we should not be fighting about,” Haney said, referring to the board’s conflict with the mayor regarding the scope of the program, and how long it should last. 

During its push to move homeless residents out of the hotels in November, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing cited the high costs of the program — reportedly $8,000 per person each month. Although it’s unclear how many people the program has served since the program launched in April, just over 2,200 people presently reside in the hotels. 

“We’ll see if the issue for them was ever cost,” Haney said. “Now that it is not, they should be not only supportive, but excited.”  

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Agreed with Onnyx’s comment on landlords’ loss. Some tenants left the city due to unemployment and couldn’t afford the rent. Landlords having a hard time finding new tenants due to unemployment rate. Some tenants did not move out of the property but not paying rent. If the government is reimbursing the state’s losses due to the pandemic, landlords should also be reimbursed as well. Especially they are the ones who paid taxes.

    Agreed with El Cheapo on tax payers are stuck paying for this reimbursement as President Biden did say he would increase taxes when he becomes the president. So landlords should get their share on this reimbursement.

  2. another fine example of swamp economics…..have a good cause like providing shelter , make a connection with a fellow elite ….cut a deal , fellow elite fills his hotel and profits on the tax payers expense …..

  3. SF is paying $8,000/mo or $266 per day for motels that are ordinarily about $85 per night. Now that FEMA, ie. taxpayers all over the country, are stuck paying for this, there is no incentive whatsoever for SF to save costs. SF should put this out for competitive bid from the motels and food providers.

  4. Onnyx, 70% or more of homeless are SF residents . What you are writing is inflammatory and not supported by fact. Some Small property owners could use some help, but you are creating an artificial “us vs them” scenario.

  5. 1. The Federal government should order that every city and state provide these homeless housing per capita, and provide resources. San Francisco can no longer be a magnate or dumping ground for the nations homeless. The majority of homeless here are from other cities and states.

    2. Landlords should also be reimbursed for unpaid rent then, isn’t it the same principle. Biden is taking care of big business hotel lobbyist. Some small property owners have virtually had their property sieged, their lives destroyed and everyone looks the other way. There are older people forced out of there own homes or forced to work 2 jobs, and time is not on there side to recover or bounce back. People should now be saying thank you to many small property owners destroyed for life.