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Flophouse or refuge for the poor: Inside the debate over a Skid Row hotel

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There are some places that few loudly claim as their home. In this slice of Downtown L.A., Kevin Michael Key is one of the few and the proud.

“I live, work and got clean and sober in the world’s largest recovery community, Skid Row, LA,” he says, by way of introduction.

Driving around the area after dark, one recent night, Key pointed out the big landmarks: a mural a local nonprofit put up on a wall they had to build to keep needles and condoms off a playground; and the office where he works, trying to rid Skid Row of what he calls “nuisance” businesses that take advantage of the mentally ill, the addicts, and the poor. As he drives, Key slows down at a business he’s heard fits the bill: the Travelers Hotel, a residential hotel where rooms rent for about $500 a month at 6th and South Ceres streets

“Yep, this is the one,” he says. Back in his addict days, Keys says he would have been attracted to this spot. “There’s always somebody hangin' out the window or on the fire escape,” he says. “There’s a lot of in-and-out activities. All of which don’t amount to criminal activity as such, but your street antenna tells you that if you’re looking for some action, that’s one of the places you would go.”

The Travelers has been a neighborhood sore spot — the “ugliest wart” in a neighborhood full of warts, Key says — for decades. For almost as long, the city has been trying to get it to clean itself up, imposing conditions of operation on the Travelers, like meeting with police, hiring a full-time security guard, and instituting a check-in system for room keys.

In May, tired of hearing about problems at the hotel, Councilman Jose Huizar asked the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee to make a move towards shutting the place down. They did, and sent the matter to the full City Council, for consideration at the June 5 meeting.

During the PLUM Committee hearing, several testified about the hotel’s problems. The local LAPD Senior Officer In Charge Jack Richter, said the two-block area around the hotel has already had 189 calls for service this year, and the hotel itself had three calls.

“Should we plop this hotel out of its current location and put it anywhere else in the city, this certainly would not be tolerated,” Councilman Huizar said. “Not a small percentage of what’s tolerated here. I don’t know what’s happened in this city that we’ve allowed it to get to this point, where over 13 years have happened and none of the conditions have been enforced. This should not be tolerated. Particularly near a school.”

That school, now over 30 years old, is a preschool run by Para Los Ninos, a nonprofit serving low-income families in Los Angeles. Parents who work in local fabric shops and other industries nearby rely on the center for daycare while they work. Martine Singer, the executive director, says she’s heard bad things about the Travelers Hotel — like that parents are often solicited by prostitutes as they pick up their children.

“The residents can often hang out the windows and shout things at the children,” Singer says. “They can throw things onto the playground. The children and families have often seen prostitution out in the open.They see drug deals happening.”

The families that rely on the center are poor, she says, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to be constantly exposed to that kind of sleaziness and grime, she says. The organization has its own security guards, has invested a lot in cleaning up their own property, and even power washes the sidewalks daily. Singer says her organization would welcome closure of the Travelers.

Closing the hotel would be a fairly unusual measure. Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association, has been working on the issue for years. She says it’s tough to do anything about public nuisances, because the city doesn’t have the resources to file lawsuits. The City Council is another route, and sometimes they’re able to intervene successfully.

The Ford Hotel, at the corner at 7th and Gladys streets is a perfect example. Once the site of multiple ugly deaths and rampant prostitution, the city shut down the privately run hotel in 1999. It was subsequently bought by the non-profit SRO Housing and the tenants were relocated. Now, the 90-unit building more resembles Bunker Hill condos than the nonprofit, low-income SRO it is. The outside is lit, its glass exterior doors lead to a bright, spacious, lobby, a security booth with over a hundred surveillance cameras, and renovated elevators and rooms.

Key says he’s sure drugs and prostitution still exist at places like the Ford, but not like they used to. “Even pimps and hos deserve a measure of cleanliness and security,” he says. “In there, you keep your [expletive] under wraps, or they’ll throw your [expletive] out.”

Just around the block, the Travelers, with two floors and 25 units, is seemingly a different world, though it serves a similar population. The pink building has more than a couple paint chips missing. It’s lighting at night is minimal. It’s clearly a place for poor residents.

Many of those residents work handing out fliers on street corners, or in the nearby fabric stores. Some live with their families in the small, black-and-white tiled rooms, and share the men’s and women’s restrooms down the hall.

Others, like Nancy Jimenez, live alone. Or rather, with a small dog, like her Chihuahua-mix, Toto. Jimenez’s room, 18, is at the top of the stairs. She keeps it clean, but packed to the brim with a TV, refrigerator, desk, bed, and walls of CDs.

“I’ve been here for seven years,” Jimenez says. “And drugs, prostitution, it’s not happening here. Not that I’ve seen, and I sit here with my door open.”

That refrain is repeated by a dozen residents, all encountered on a tour with the building’s owner, Balubhai Patel and his lessee, Apolinar Arrellano, who runs the hotel. Patel bought the place 13 years ago and Arrellano has run it for about a decade. During a 40-minute tour in the middle of a Sunday, the place doesn’t quite appear as described by detractors.

The floors are clean, there are no obvious stenches, there are no large dogs, no visible drugs, no one hanging out of the screened windows, and no human excrement in or around the building. It’s a rundown place, but if there are illicit things going on, they’re not immediately visible.

Nor is the hotel, Patel and Arrellano admit, in compliance with the city’s conditions for operation. They haven’t hired a full-time security guard (they say it’s too expensive), haven’t required that tenants drop off their keys when they leave (too burdensome for tenants, they say), and do not cite any active outreach to the community or law enforcement.

Patel and Arrellano’s attorney, Frank Weiser, says the two were in the middle of appealing the conditions when closure was suddenly sprung upon them. Also noting that the city inspector in charge of monitoring the hotel did not recommend closure, Weiser says the PLUM Committee violated his client’s due process rights by suddenly beginning proceedings to shut the hotel down in May.

“Should my client have been notified?,” he says. “Shouldn’t the tenants have been notified?”

Weiser and Patel both say the action is politically motivated — the city, they say, wants a different owner in that building, whether it’s a developer, the adjacent preschool, or a non-profit provider. Weiser says his clients plan on filing suit if the city proceeds with closure.

Councilman Huizar was not available for comment.

As for the tenants, they’d likely be either relocated or given compensation if their home goes away. Some are worried: like Jimenez, who says she’ll likely end up living out of her car if the Travelers shuts down. Jimenez is a student at East LA College. She says it’s hard to find a clean, quiet place near Skid Row with rent like the $530 she pays a month.

It’s hard to reconcile the various pictures painted by different people when they talk about the hotel: Is it a drug and prostitution den? Or a rundown, but adequate home for the poor? And on a larger scale how much are you allowed to expect from a property that takes in little money, hosts people who have so little money, and is located in one of the more challenging places to live in the country?

That’s the dichotomy of a changing neighborhood: the challenge of serving a population that travels with baggage.

“One thing I do know,” Key says. “If the city tells you to do something, you comply. And these guys haven’t done anything.

This piece originally stated Jimenez was a student at Cal State-East LA. The error has been corrected. 

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