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L.A.'s infamous Cecil Hotel up for sale after transformation to house homeless people

Los Angeles, CA - May 16: Cecil Hotel on Tuesday, May 16, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. Tenants complain of difficult living conditions at the Cecil Hotel located at 640 S Main St, Los Angeles. The Cecil Hotel was built as a budget hotel in 1924 and in 2021 was reopened as an affordable housing complex operated by the Skid Row Housing Trust. The facility plans to provide affordable living accommodations for 600 low-income residents. In February 2017, the Los Angeles City Council voted to deem the Cecil a Historic-Cultural Monument, because it is representative of an early 20th-century American hotel and because of the historic significance of its architect's body of work. (Al Seib / For The Times)
The Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was a hotel for nearly a century before the Skid Row Housing Trust began operating it in 2021 to provide affordable housing. (Al Seib / For The Times)

Now searching for a new owner: Downtown Los Angeles high-rise rich in colorful anecdotes from its history, albeit most quite haunting. Offers units overlooking Skid Row, many stubbornly vacant. Best known for the Netflix series about the dead body found in a water tank on its roof.

The building is the infamous Cecil Hotel, which was transformed in recent years into a privately funded supportive-housing complex for the formerly homeless. A new owner wouldn't technically acquire the property at 640 S. Main Street but would instead take over the 99-year ground lease, which allows its long-term use and development. The new listing did not include a selling price, but the property's land and improvements were assessed at a total value of $31 million in 2023.

The storied building opened in the 1920s as a luxury hotel but later became the site of a string of deadly incidents, including several murders, suicides and overdoses, as well as the home of notorious serial killers. Perhaps its best-documented tragedy was the 2013 death of a Canadian guest whose body was found in a water tank on the hotel's roof after she'd been missing for weeks; her story later became the subject of a 2021 true-crime series on Netflix.

Read more: It takes a village to house the homeless. Residents say the Cecil Hotel is failing to provide

Recent renovations were made to revamp the 15-floor building, which reopened in 2021. Since then, the owners have reserved most rooms for tenants in the bottom 30% of the area’s median income, accepting unhoused Angelenos with government-funded housing vouchers.

But the housing project has struggled to take off, unable to fill its 600 units — most of which share bathrooms, kitchens and laundry facilities — despite the city's worsening homelessness crisis. Among those who did move in as well as property staff, there were complaints and increasing concerns about safety issues, unsanitary conditions and constant maintenance backups.

Despite the challenges, the building's real estate listing said it was currently 60% occupied, with an expectation that it would be 80% to 90% filled by midyear. About half of the units were occupied last summer.

The Cecil's listing on the commercial property site LoopNet was first reported by real estate news outlet the Real Deal. One agent listed for the property declined to answer questions from The Times, deferring to a public relations spokesperson who did not immediately respond.

Matthew Baron, president of Baron Property Group, which owns the building and has been working to transform it, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the Eberly Co., the Cecil's property management company.

Nonprofit teams and volunteers working in the Cecil Hotel building said they were caught off guard by the potential sale, especially after new programs providing needed services — including medical and mental health care — were just established in recent weeks.

Read more: How problems at two of Skid Row’s largest landlords threaten to worsen L.A.'s homelessness crisis

“I'm hoping, in any transaction, that this program is not only preserved and kept in place but has a lot of potential for growth," said Al Ballesteros, chief executive of the JWCH Institute, a nonprofit healthcare provider now operating two clinics on the Cecil Hotel's ground floor. "We have served quite a few people there; I know for sure that it’s making a difference."

His organization, in conjunction with the county, recently started a program called Safe Landing, aimed at helping people get off the streets and connecting them to services, support and temporary housing. They are also running a medical clinic for residents.

With so much need in the area, Ballesteros said, he's hopeful the Cecil will soon have all of its rooms filled.

“It seems to be a missed opportunity," he said. "I’m hoping the new owners, they invest the type of energy and resources to be able to fully utilize the building for individuals that we serve."

The Rev. Dylan Littlefield, chaplain for the Cecil Hotel apartments, said he and the building's residents had learned this week about the potential sale, which caused a rush of concern and shock.

“It was very destabilizing," Littlefield said. “I probably got a dozen calls or emails."

Read more: L.A. hotel’s homeless residents forced school to shut down, lawsuit says

He said residents feared that they were going to lose their homes — some after finally settling in following years on the street. He wished the current owner had met with residents to explain the situation and assure them that they won't soon be facing homelessness again.

“People need to know there is some stability," said Littlefield, who visits the building at least twice a week.

Simon Baron Development, a New York-based real estate developer, acquired the building in late 2015 through the 99-year ground lease, and initially planned to renovate it as half hotel, half market-rate apartment building.

But then COVID-19 hit, and the developer pivoted to make affordable housing the project's focus. (Simon Baron Development has since split into Simon Development and Baron Property Group, the latter of which still owns the lease.)

There are 91 years remaining on that lease.

Littlefield said he believes there's a chance now for a new owner — ideally not one based in New York — who could better support the high-need community that's getting a second chance at the Cecil.

“My hope would be that whoever does buy the lease is able to do a better job at community building, at being proactive in the life of the building," he said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.