The buildings of a non-profit homeless shelter lie in ruins. City plans intervention


LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10: Juan Smith resides in a room with a door that does not close at the Sanborn Hotel Apartments on Friday March 10, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA.  (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Juan Smith lives in a room at the Sanborn Hotel Apartments with a door that won’t close. Located on South Main Street in downtown LA, the Sanborn is one of the buildings owned by the Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit organization whose leaders recently disclosed financial constraints that made it impossible to maintain its buildings. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The dilapidated condition of the Sanborn Hotel Apartments can be seen from the sidewalk. Holes were punched in the wire-reinforced windows of his front doors. And one of the latches doesn’t work, leaving the building open to intruders who roam the hallways at night, turning doorknobs and trying to get into open-plan apartments.

Inside, a rancid odor permeates the hallways, begging for Lysol. The manager’s office is dark and empty, residents say, since the last resident left last summer. In bathroom #2 on the second floor, there is no water in the toilet, but there is a lot of human waste.

James Porter, right, at the Sanborn Hotel Apartments in Los Angeles

Longtime tenant James Porter, 75, right, complains about the dirty floors and unsafe environment at the Sanborn Hotel Apartments. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The Sanborn is one of 29 buildings owned by Skid Row Housing Trust, a non-profit organization that has been a paragon of homeless shelter for more than 30 years. But the very model that helped revitalize some of downtown’s oldest hotels is now crumbling.

Earlier this year, Trust leaders announced deepening financial constraints that made maintaining these buildings impossible. Their solution, with guidance from the Los Angeles Housing Department, was to turn over the entire portfolio to other housing companies, a process that would require months of difficult negotiations at best.

Conditions at the Sanborn, observed by The Times last week, reveal a crisis of far greater urgency.

The trust’s interim chief executive and chief of staff, Joanne Cordero, said in a statement that she was confident the plan remained viable.

“We remain focused on transitioning our properties to vendors who are willing and able to provide ongoing housing and services to our residents,” she said. “We are inspired by our employees who work tirelessly to keep the properties and services available to our city’s most vulnerable people. We believe that with adequate funding and support from key public and private stakeholders, we can successfully deliver the properties.”

But city housing officials acknowledged in an interview that the Sanborn and other trust buildings are in a state of emergency that requires immediate attention.

Ann Sewill, executive director of the Los Angeles Housing Department, said she will seek City Council approval to exercise the city’s power as a creditor to take control of at least some of the trust’s buildings and provide security and management as needed.

Sewill said her staff became aware of the emergency while conducting an inventory of the trust’s buildings to document their financial and physical condition for potential future owners.

What they found, Sewill said, suggested the trust was so cash-flow and staff poor that day-to-day oversight of its buildings collapsed, a condition exemplified by the Sanborn.

The only supervisor there was a young man standing outside on the sidewalk. He wore a jacket with the emblem of a contract security company. Local residents said he was the janitor and complained that he wasn’t doing his job.

Jarian Jovan Banks is seen kneeling through a broken glass pane of an exit door at the Sanborn Hotel Apartments.

When Jarian Jovan Banks, 44, moved into the Sanborn Hotel Apartments in 2016, he said: “There was a receptionist. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic.” But now “it’s so bad I don’t feel safe anymore.” (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Jarian Jovan Banks, who has lived in the building since 2016, said things were different when he moved in.

“There was an employee,” he said. “There wasn’t much foot traffic. you felt safe It’s bad now. It’s so bad that I don’t feel safe anymore.”

Kris Trattner, co-owner of the Nickel Diner next to the Sanborn, said she’s seen a steady escalation of problems since the former manager left.

“I’ve been involved with the street rabble for 14 years, so I know how to play it,” she said. “But it’s increased in the last six months.”

Trattner said she knows several women who decided to leave the building because they felt unsafe. “Non-residents walk up and down the hallways, wiggling their doors to get in,” she said.

Banks said he got involved in an altercation about a month ago when the fire alarm went off overnight. Residents found the kitchen filled with smoke and an intruder sitting on a couch in the dark while something burned on the stove.

“‘Why don’t you just turn off the burner so the fire alarm doesn’t go off?'” Banks asked. “He doesn’t live there and he doesn’t care.”

Thirteen of the Sanborn’s 41 units were declared uninhabitable by the City of Los Angeles Housing Authority after tenants moved out.

Residents said they had little contact with case managers and that some tenants were causing problems for others. On the third floor, behind a door wedged open with a roll of toilet paper, a young man stared up from a mattress on the floor, unable to traverse his tiny room through a waist-high stack of items with a bicycle on top.

The Sanborn, on the 500 block of South Main Street, is one of the Trust’s earliest acquisitions and probably its most problematic building. But it’s not the only thing in the crisis. Tenants of two other buildings have filed lawsuits alleging unlivable conditions.

In mid-February, the Dewey Hotel Apartments, two blocks south of the Sanborn, fell under housing authority scrutiny after rainwater seeping through the roof caused mold. Then a fire broke out on the second floor. The Housing Authority relocated the remaining 22 residents to vacancies in other trust buildings. The Los Angeles Fire Department is investigating arson.

Due to a recent fire, the Dewey Hotel Apartments have been boarded up and closed.

The Dewey Hotel Apartments, another property owned by Skid Row Housing Trust, have been red marked and boarded up since mold was discovered and a fire broke out there last month. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

But the Dewey, marked in red and boarded up, isn’t entirely uninhabited, housing officials said. Squatters have found a way to get in through the Senator Hotel, another trust building next door.

Built in 1911, the Dewey and the 1908 Sanborn reflect the challenge of preserving both vintage and antiquated properties, designed after the early 20th-century hotel model with tiny rooms and shared bathrooms and kitchens. The Sanborn was renovated in 1992 using tax credit funding involving outside investors who had a financial interest in maintaining the building. However, these investors exited the project after about 15 years, leaving the Trust as sole owner with long-term loans to the city and state.

Twelve of the trust’s 29 buildings fit into this category, said Daniel Huynh, deputy director-general of the housing agency.

Their age, poor condition and lack of equity investors make them unattractive to the other housing companies that are being asked to take over the trust’s portfolio.

In recent years, the trust has expanded its portfolio to include new builds that have brought architecturally striking facades to Skid Row and created more modern floor plans with individual bathrooms.

PATH, a nationwide provider of homeless services and homebuilders, is one of the organizations looking to take over one of the Trust’s buildings. Executive Director Jennifer Hark Dietz said PATH is looking at 11 buildings, but only the newer ones that still have equity investors.

Even these new buildings can be disrupted by mechanical and human failures.

“We would need to have the capital and working capital to ensure the building would operate habitably,” Hark Dietz said. “It’s not clear on these pages where the money is supposed to come from.”

Yolanda Cunningham Smith sits on a chair with her walker in front of her.

Yolanda Cunningham Smith, 67, says she was locked in her fifth-floor room at 649 Lofts, a Skid Row Housing Trust property, for two weeks when the elevators broke down. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Yolanda Cunningham Smith, a Navy veteran whose arthritis and nerve damage makes it difficult for her to get up from her chair, said she was trapped on the fifth floor of one of the trust’s newer buildings, the 649 Lofts, for more than two weeks after the elevator broke down .

The building has a caretaker, a caretaker and a uniformed security guard. But being in the heart of Skid Row puts management under stress.

“There’s no security at night,” Smith said.

When she was stranded in her apartment one night, she said, the fire alarm kept going. Each time, a strobe light would flash in her room and the PA system would tell her to evacuate and not use the elevator.

“When I moved in, it was a new building,” she says. “I couldn’t have imagined that at all,” Smith said, adding that the elevator broke down several times.

After spending 16 days in her room, Smith said Thursday the elevator was fixed Wednesday night and she could return to her job as a tax analyst for H&R Block.

Intruders are not uncommon in the 649 lofts either.

“I went to the garbage chute the other day,” Smith said. “I opened the door. There was someone in the room. They hit the pipe.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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