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Downtown LA's historic Rosslyn Hotel Apartments set to become permanent housing for homeless

In L.A.'s booming downtown, derelict buildings from the turn of the last century are being gutted and reborn as high end apartments. Wealthy new renters are returning in droves to these old buildings. 

But unlike many beautiful Beaux Arts buildings undergoing a makeover, the restored Rosslyn will cater not to high-end luxury loft seekers, but to the area's growing homeless population. 

From high-end hotel to home for homeless

The Rosslyn was purchased in 2010 by downtown's SRO Housing Corporation, a nonprofit organization with a mission is to rehabilitate rundown hotels into safe housing for L.A.'s homeless.

When it's finished, the former hotel will be home to 264 of the L.A.'s most vulnerable denizens. Ninety-three units will go to the city's most needy — with half of those units reserved for homeless who've been diagnosed with severe mental illness. An additional 75 units have been reserved for homeless veterans. 

The rest of the rooms will continue to be home to the low-income tenants who lived in the building and decided to pass up the new owners' offer to buy out their leases. 

Photos: Old luxury hotel turned homes for homeless

 As part of the upgrade, SRO Housing provides security at its buildings and wrap-around supportive services like mental health and addiction counseling for its tenants. Those could mean the difference between self-sufficiency and homelessness.

​"See, when you're an addict, you gotta get your time filled up where you won't have time to think about that stuff," says George Lofton, a tenant at one of SRO Housing's buildings who works providing security and driving the groups' van.

Lofton says he's been living in Skid Row since the '80s. He says he spent 17 years as a cocaine addict, living on the streets for much of that time.

Now 14 years sober, he said SRO Housing gave him a second chance.

"I love SRO. They have done wonders for people," he said. "Not just for myself. For people."

The nonprofit has been taking over run-down hotels and revamping them to livable homes since the '80s. But the Rosslyn is the organization's first property outside of Skid Row. 

"For us being able to acquire that beautiful building is huge," says SRO Housing CEO Anita Nelson. "And it's something that we're really excited about."

"SRO" is shorthand for a single-room occupancy apartment building. At the turn of the last century, Skid Row was ground zero for their development. Nelson says the area was a destination for single men, riding the rails to L.A. during downtown's heyday. They were looking for a short term place to stay.

"They wanted to live in housing that had little amenities because they wanted to save their money so they could send it back to their families," Nelson says. "So that's why you have such a prevalent amount of single-room occupancy hotels in the Skid Row area."

The Rosslyn and its sister building — now called the Rosslyn Lofts — were built to house them all. When they were first erected, they were the largest hotels on the Pacific Coast.  

As downtown faded in later years, hotels like the Rosslyn became homes of last resort for whole families. Then, in the '50s and '60s, many of them became slums. And, with a few exceptions, that's how they remained, for more than 40 years.

Downtown's housing crunch

All that's changed in the last 10 years. The number of people living downtown has boomed in that time. And a slew of new residential developments promise to boost its population even higher.  

Demand for housing downtown hasn't been so high since the Rosslyn's heyday. 

"You see a lot of development downtown, but those aren't earmarked for low-income and homeless individuals," Nelson says. "And that's the population we choose to serve."

The need for supportive housing is growing alongside a spiking demand for luxury lofts, and there's some concern that it will become more and more difficult for groups like Nelson's to compete with big developers with their eyes on downtown real estate. 

"Because we can't compete with your... I don't want to call them for-profit developers," Nelson said. "It's going to be tougher for us."

SRO Housing's waiting list for the recently homeless was capped at 500, but the group says it could easily have grown past 2,000 if they allowed more to sign up.

Meanwhile, Home for Good — a joint effort of United Way L.A. and the city's chamber of commerce — estimates that the need for the kind of all-inclusive supportive housing for downtown's homeless will reach 7,231 in 2014. The following year, that number is expected to jump to 7,875. 

Shared past, different futures

SRO Housing's Director of Planning and Housing Development, Joseph Corcoran is thrilled at the prospect of getting the project completed and getting new tenants moved in. His crew has uncovered a lot of forgotten history at the hotel since they started working on it. 

In the basement, he found an underground tunnel that used to connect the Rosslyn with the Rosslyn Lofts across the street. 

Both hotels were built at downtown's height as the center of the city. The Rosslyn Lofts (once called The Frontier) was built in 1914, the Rosslyn (originally called the Rosslyn Annex) in 1923.  They both still feature twin rooftop marquees sporting matching red neon hearts — a tribute to the Hardt brothers, who built and operated them both.

In 2009 the Rosslyn Lofts became a mixed-use development. It's now split between low-income "micro loft" apartments and market rate luxury lofts. 

The umbilical tunnel between the two has since been bricked up. Next to it, Corcoran's team unearthed an old speakeasy. The bar is covered with dust and old boxes, and there's still an old icebox sitting in the corner.

"This has probably been empty for 40 years," he says. "When we bought the building we were surprised it was here."

Even more surprising is what they found across the hall — an old barber shop. 

"You could just picture gangsters in the barber shop, right?" Corcoran says. "Al Capone or whoever — I don't know who ... Mickey Cohen?"

With or without gangsters, there's a lot of L.A. history hidden in the Rosslyn. And all of it will be preserved.

As part of their responsibility as the building's new owners, SRO Housing Corp is tasked with overseeing the hotel's historic preservation. That means everything from the brass doorknobs to the honeycomb tiles on the bathroom floor will be preserved and restored.

On the mezzanine, Corcoran's crew unearthed a skylight that had been boarded up since World War II and an old mural of Yosemite that's been hanging in the building since it first opened. He's working on getting a century's worth of grime removed from its fibers. It looks ancient.

"But I don't want it to look that old when we're done," Corcoran says. "I want it to look fresh and new. And if they can't make look fresh and new, we're gonna get rid of it."

"Getting rid of it" would mean finding a home for it in a collection elsewhere. The city would never allow — and Corcoran wouldn't ever want — to discard it.

But Corcoran's concern speaks to his vision for the future of the Rosslyn; the project isn't about reliving downtown's past to attract a new slew of renters. It's about bringing back an old building's integrity to lift the spirit of its new residents.

"This hotel used to be an asset to the city. The original grandeur of the lobby, the skylight, the second floor — that's all going to be brought back," Corcoran says. "But it also has to be a functional apartment building. And this space has to be for the residents to enjoy. I want them to know that they're living in a special building and kind of enjoy and take it all in and live their lives the way you and I are allowed to do on a daily basis. They deserve the same opportunity."

Those new opportunities will come this summer, when the Rosslyn Hotel Apartments will begin leasing rooms to its new tenants. 

Home For Good's estimated need for supportive housing downtown