Why so many vacancies at Sacramento’s downtown resident hotels?

Experts say the city needs more affordable housing, but many low-cost rooms remain empty

by Dave Kempa
May 5, 2013
News & Review

If you called the Marshall Hotel two weeks ago about renting a room in the 95-unit residence for low-income earners, the woman on the line would have said, “No vacancies.”

Yet earlier this month, a report by the city’s low-income housing agency stated that the building—which rests next to the site of the proposed new Kings arena—had 30 empty units. In fact, the Marshall Hotel has cited the same number of vacant rooms in each annual recap over the past three years—and 28 in 2010.

Two other hotels that allow long-term residents, the Capitol Park and Congress, came back with almost identical vacancy percentages over the past four years.

The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency’s yearly summary reveals that more than 25 percent of the mandated 712 residential hotel units in the city were not in use at the time of reporting.

Activists and city leaders say there’s a dire need for low-income housing in Sacramento. So why all the empty rooms?

Hotel residences, previously referred to as single-room occupancies (or SROs), have played a role in Sacto’s urban center for decades. The purpose of these small, affordable units is to help keep a portion of the low-income earners in the city housed.

SRO numbers have dwindled in recent years, however, dropping from more than 1,000 in the 1980s to a little more than 700 in 2006.

That year, in order to ensure that no more hotel residences faded away, the city passed an ordinance ensuring that 712 units always remain in operation.

Residents at the Marshall Hotel claim that almost a quarter of the location’s units simply aren’t rentable.

“The rooms are really run-down,” said Jeffrey Marsh, who has lived in the Marshall for about a year. He says the building has suffered from cockroach and bed bug infestations, as well as upkeep and safety issues.

“We’ve got two rooms full of bats,” he said.

The Marshall has a history with code enforcement. Just last year, the city made the hotel install air conditioning for its residents, who struggled to make it through the August heat.

Today, there is currently an open complaint to code enforcement against the hotel citing 17 possible violations, varying from exposed conductors to defective flooring. None of the items mention pests.

SN&R caught up with one of the partners of the group that owns the Marshall Hotel, Pete Noack, who said that upkeep is a difficult and ongoing task.

“It’s tough,” he said. “We don’t charge a lot of money for rent. It’s not a cash cow.”

Noack agreed that the Marshall has had issues with pests, but said they have a pest-control company come in regularly. Sometimes bats get inside through the siding, he noted, but they are by no means living in the building.

The occupancy rates, according to Noack, are low because the hotel uses some of the rooms for storage, maintenance and housekeeping, plus there are cooling rooms—city-mandated open areas with chairs and air conditioners.

Some rooms often require maintenance before being considered for occupancy, Noack explained. Sometimes a sink has been taken out for replacement. Or the roof leaks. Other times, former residents have left holes in the walls or mirrors shattered.

Code enforcement conducts annual inspections on the city’s hotel residences, and officials told SN&R that the Community Development Department is currently compiling a list of violations for the Marshall to address. In regard to vacancy rates, no one on city staff verifies those numbers.

Two more hotel residences have repeatedly listed high vacancy numbers in recent years.

The 180-unit Capitol Park Hotel, dedicated to housing seniors, reported 60 vacant units three out of the past four years (76 in 2011), and the Congress Hotel has had at least one-third of its 27 units empty in the past four SHRA summaries.

The manager at Capitol Park Hotel didn’t respond to SN&R’s calls, but one employee said that the vacancies may be because some rooms were “undesirable.”

Congress Hotel, meanwhile, said that numbers fluctuate due to any number of factors. If it’s raining, for instance, the units will fill up. Then, in the summer, the location often experiences a mass exodus of residents who would prefer to save money by braving the elements at night.

SHRA executive director La Shelle Dozier told SN&R that the city doesn’t have oversight of the Marshall, Capitol Park and Congress hotels (or the Golden Hotel, whose vacancy numbers remain low). While these locations fall under the residential-hotel ordinance, they enjoy executive freedom due to the fact that they have not received funding from SHRA.

When the time comes for the annual report, SHRA “sends these hotels a survey, which they just fill out and send back to us,” said Dozier. That’s the best they can currently do in terms of monitoring them.

SHRA has some say over how things are run at the remaining locations, which include the just-opened Seventh and H streets project and the newly remodeled Hotel Berry on Eighth and L streets.

As far as filling rooms goes, the highest vacancy rates in SHRA’s jurisdiction in the report came from the Berry and Sequoia hotels. The Berry, which was reopened in September, has been filling rooms rapidly in recent weeks. The Sequoia, meanwhile, reported 20 vacant units out of 90, catching the city’s attention.

Both Councilman Steve Hansen and SHRA’s Dozier commented at a recent city council meeting on increasing efforts to improve the quality of life for residents at this location and the Marshall.

Hansen hinted that the focus for residential hotels should be less on numbers than on quality of life.

“I want to make a note that we still have work to do making sure that everybody lives in a quality of housing,” he said, “regardless of their income level and regardless of other conditions.”

Hotel residences such as the Marshall are quite often the only chance some folks have for keeping a roof over their heads. Many residents who spoke with SN&R are recovering addicts, and a search through the state’s Megan’s Law database reveals, in aggregate, dozens of convicted sex offenders living in the Marshall, Capitol Park and Sequoia.

“The reason this place stays open is because of the parolees,” said Jeffrey Marsh’s uncle, Jimmy Garland, a Marshall resident of some 18 months. A parolee himself due to past drug offenses, Garland is still grateful that he is not out on the streets.

And despite the building’s condition, Noack maintains that he and the building’s staff care about the residents. “We take care of these people,” he said. “These are my friends. These are my tenants.”