New Castle County to move forward with bid on hotel for emergency shelter
New Castle County is looking to use its federal coronavirus relief funds to buy a hotel.
The 192-room Sheraton hotel in New Castle would be used as an emergency shelter and temporary housing for those experiencing homelessness. County officials say the goal is to protect the most vulnerable residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Castle County, the state and some municipal governments have already used federal funds to provide hotel vouchers to some experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.
The Sheraton hotel on Airport Rd. is for sale by auction. It was last occupied last December and underwent a $6.4 million renovation this spring, according to the real estate website Ten-X.
Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to authorize the bid.
Councilman Penrose Hollins said during Tuesday’s Council meeting that the pandemic is exacerbating homelessness—and hampering the ability of shelters to house people. County officials say cold-weather emergency shelter capacity, known as Code Purple, will be limited this winter.
“Even though we do not have adequate space right now for the homeless population, with the pandemic trending the way it is and the winter right around the corner, we all know this is going to get a lot worse," Hollins said.
Time was of the essence, as the auction opened Monday and closes Wednesday afternoon. The opening bid was $5.5 million—but the top bid was several million dollars higher as of Tuesday evening.
Hollins emphasized that the resolution only authorizes the County to bid and does not purchase the hotel.
“This is just the sort of opportunity that doesn’t come along [often],” said John Whitelaw, advocacy director at the Delaware Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI), during the public comment period of Tuesday’s Community Service Committee meeting.
Whitelaw echoed Hollins’ concern about worsening homelessness as the pandemic goes on, in addition to the pre-existing, “chronic, devastating problem” of homelessness for many Delaware families.
“There has not yet been a big uptick in evictions, but I don’t think there’s anyone either on the tenant side or the landlord side that thinks there isn’t one coming at the beginning of the year,” said Whitelaw. “So we’re going to be faced with many, many more families who do not have shelter.”
But some members of the public raised concerns about long-term funding of the hotel’s operation.
County Community Development and Housing Manager Carrie Casey said during Tuesday’s committee meeting that the hotel wouldn’t just provide shelter.
“We are working diligently in parallel with the bidding process to partner with a social service agency for client services,” said Casey, who chairs the anti-homelessness collaborative Delaware Continuum of Care. “That would include meals, security, obviously all the COVID screenings, the wraparound case management.”
Funding to purchase of the hotel would come from the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief grant money the County controls.
Casey said the County is talking with the hotel's current management company, which also manages a Sheraton-turned-homeless-shelter in New York.
“We would operate it as a hotel,” Casey said. “An extended-stay type.”
It is unclear how long the County plans to own the hotel, or how long-term operational costs would be funded.
County Executive Matt Meyer recently told WDEL that officials believe the County could operate the hotel on “an ongoing basis” without having a “detrimental impact” to the County budget.
Casey said Tuesday she hopes the project could help address the shortage of affordable housing in New Castle County long-term. She said for every 100 people living below the poverty line, the county only has 24 units of affordable housing.
“That’s what we really need to do, is make this something that becomes permanent, that can be supported permanently for people that are low-income,” Casey said.
“The fact that through the Department [of Community Services] they have a long-term plan makes me comfortable that it could be used for one purpose now but could be easily transitioned,” said Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick.
Council members said further details about the project would be worked out later.
Gov. John Carney, when asked Tuesday afternoon whether the state would partner with the county to provide services at the hotel, did not commit to do so. But he mentioned that a group of community health workers led by Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long worked on finding space in hotels for people experiencing homelessness earlier in the pandemic. He said he would like to learn more about the County’s long-term plan for the hotel.