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Downtown L.A.’s Notorious Cecil Hotel Is Being Turned Into Affordable Housing for Skid Row

photo: Christopher Alvarenga via Unsplash

L.A.'s 97-year-old Cecil Hotel, which looms almost as large on Skid Row's skyline as it does in our imaginations, will be turned into affordable housing for 600 homeless Angelenos and others facing housing insecurity today. A ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9:45 AM this rainy morning was held by the Skid Row Housing Trust, which will operate the building for New York-based owner Simon Baron Development, which teases a mixed-use development on its website.

Los Angeles Magazine details the housing plan, which will offer residents single-room occupancy units along with small "efficiency" studios, with secured entry as well as access to community kitchen spaces, laundry facilities, and a rec room.

Echoing an earlier report by Curbed L.A., eligible residents of the SRO units must make 30 to 60 percent of the area median income, though a majority of the Cecil units are being held for those who make less. Management services will be handled by Skid Row Housing Trust Health and Social Services and are said to be funded and self-sustained by private capital.

The three-headed hotel, a grand dame of downtown’s streetcar and theater mecca in the early part of the 20th century, had notoriously fallen into disrepair in the decades following the 1940s, mirroring the rise and expansion of surrounding Skid Row. The fading hotel’s hulking skeleton, “low daily rates,” and reputation for macabre occurrences, scant oversight, and casual crime has turned it into a place of morbid curiosity for many around the world. It is also an officially recognized L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument.

The hotel’s first suicide was recorded in 1927, with an estimated 12 to follow. Serial killers including Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez and Austria’s Jack Unterweger are both believed to have stayed there amidst their killing sprees. At least one brutal, unsolved murder was recorded between its walls.

With many of its floors rebranded as the more boutique “Stay on Main” in 2011, Canadian student Elisa Lam was depicted during her final frantic moments on the hotel’s surveillance cameras, shortly before disappearing there in 2013. After water with a strange taste trickled through the faucets of other guests, Lam’s naked body was eventually discovered in a water tank on the hotel’s roof.  Cable T.V. documentaries and a Netflix series turned the case into an international sensation, intriguing horror fans, and dark history buffs.

Whether today’s enthusiasm for the reuse of the Cecil and the promised protection for its residents will be sustained through the years to come, the project seems to enjoy the support of some who work or live in Skid Row and are relieved to see an immediate option for people to get off the streets as quickly as possible.

In a comment on The L.A. Mission's Instagram, where the story broke last night, celebrated Skid Row photographer Suitcase Joe writes, “This is a wonderful start in the right direction!" followed by a hopeful "This is incredible" and a "Wow, that is so beautiful" from people on the thread.

Others on the sidelines are not so sure, with common comments like "Yikes, that building is cursed," "Good idea. Bad building to do it in," "That’s really good, but isn’t that place haunted?" and another mocking "Oh the poor folks? Just give them the haunted place. It’s fiiiine." There's also comments along the lines of "These are jail size units. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to house 600 ppl in one building."

While these comments seem to ignore the daily horrors and indignities of being pushed to live on the streets, others take aim at the documentaries for sullying the building, including horror fans themselves, in comments like, "You folks spend thousands of dollars to come on ghost tours in NOLA but don’t want the homeless living in an old crackhouse? What is it prime real estate?" and "The doc pissed me off. Demonized the unhoused and minimized mental health concerns."

One commenter identifying as houseless says, "I'm homeless in Los Angeles and skid row is one of the most dangerous places especially for young women because of all the drug dealers and crime going on there. This hotel is known for women getting murdered there in the past. I will NEVER go or accept housing on skid row as a non addict homless woman. Id rather die lol."

The comment exemplifies the challenge this project's planners may have to overcome to change a reputation that may be somewhat unfairly earned, considering the official tally of just one murder in the building in 1964 and an infanticide stretching back to 1944.

What's certain is that all eyes will be on the Cecil as this new chapter in its history opens today. With a stained reputation and grim history, the years ahead will hopefully find it turned into a beacon for those who need help getting off the streets, leaking light into the darkness, and inspiring similar solutions for L.A.'s unhoused. Of course, should the promises of private enterprise go unfulfilled, the Cecil could have more dark years still ahead.

Still, on a cold, wet morning, it's encouraging at the moment to see someone doing something, anything, to provide safe harbor for hundreds of people who are too easily left behind by society to visibly suffer on our sidewalks.

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