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Cecil Hotel, once notorious in L.A., now serving as shelter for the homeless, up for sale

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The Cecil Hotel, located at 640 South Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles, is now searching for a new owner. This high-rise building is rich in colorful anecdotes from its history, although most of them are quite haunting. The hotel offers units overlooking Skid Row, but many of them remain stubbornly vacant. The hotel is best known for being featured in a Netflix series about a dead body found in a water tank on its roof.

Originally opened in the 1920s as a luxury hotel, the Cecil Hotel later became the site of a string of deadly incidents, including several murders, suicides, overdoses, and the home of notorious serial killers. One of its best-documented tragedies was the 2013 death of a Canadian guest whose body was found in a water tank on the hotel’s roof after she had been missing for weeks. Her story later became the subject of a 2021 true-crime series on Netflix.

In recent years, the Cecil Hotel was transformed into a privately funded supportive-housing complex for the formerly homeless. A new owner would not technically acquire the property, but would instead take over the 99-year ground lease, allowing for its long-term use and development. The property’s land and improvements were assessed at a total value of $31 million in 2023.

Recent renovations were made to revamp the 15-floor building, which reopened in 2021. 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. However, the housing project has struggled to fill its 600 units, with complaints of safety issues, unsanitary conditions, and constant maintenance backups.

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Despite the challenges, the building’s real estate listing states that it is currently 60% occupied, with an expectation that it will be 80% to 90% filled by midyear. The Cecil Hotel’s listing on the commercial property site LoopNet was first reported by the Real Deal. The current owner, Baron Property Group, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the Cecil’s property management company, the Eberly Co.

Nonprofit teams and volunteers working in the Cecil Hotel building expressed surprise at the potential sale, especially considering new programs providing essential services that were recently established. Organizations like the JWCH Institute, a nonprofit healthcare provider operating clinics on the Cecil Hotel’s ground floor, have been assisting residents with medical and mental health care.

Rev. Dylan Littlefield, chaplain for the Cecil Hotel apartments, expressed concern about the potential sale, as residents fear losing their homes. Littlefield emphasized the importance of stability for residents who have finally found a place to call home.

Simon Baron Development, a New York-based real estate developer, acquired the Cecil Hotel in 2015 and initially planned to renovate it as a hotel and market-rate apartment building. However, due to COVID-19, the developer shifted focus to affordable housing. Littlefield believes there is a chance for a new owner, ideally not based in New York, to better support the high-need community at the Cecil Hotel.

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Black couple overcomes racism to rent to Chinese family, who show gratitude by paying rent.

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Decades ago, in the early 1900s, racism and discriminatory housing practices plagued the town of Coronado, barring many individuals from living in certain neighborhoods based on their race. In the midst of this oppressive era, an inspiring story of resilience and generosity unfolded between two families — the Thompsons, a Black couple, and the Dongs, a Chinese family.

Gus and Emma Thompson, who were among the few Black families to own property in Coronado before racial restrictions took hold, defied the norms of the time by renting their house to the Dong family. Lloyd Dong Sr., a Chinese immigrant, and his wife found solace in the Thompsons’ willingness to offer them a place to call home despite the racist barriers they faced.

Fast forward 85 years later, the sons of Lloyd Dong Sr., Ron Dong, and Lloyd Dong Jr., have decided to pay forward the kindness shown to their family by donating $5 million from the sale of the house they eventually owned to San Diego State University’s Black Resource Center. This generous gift will help expand scholarships for Black students and fund renovations at the center, creating a lasting impact on the community.

Exterior view of a single-story home

The Dongs’ family house in Coronado, originally the home of the Thompsons.

(Courtesy of Janice Dong)

This heartwarming tale of intergenerational gratitude highlights the resilience and spirit of unity that transcends racial boundaries. Brandon Gamble, the director of the Black Resource Center, expressed the profound impact of this donation on the community, emphasizing the importance of stories that challenge racism and foster a sense of camaraderie.

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Reflecting on the legacy of his father and the Thompsons, Ron Dong shared, “That was the big plus for our family, because it has made all the difference for us.” The intertwined histories of the Thompson and Dong families serve as a testament to the power of empathy and solidarity in the face of adversity.

Gus Thompson’s journey from slavery to becoming a respected community leader in Coronado, coupled with Emma Thompson’s advocacy for civil rights, exemplifies the resilience and determination of marginalized communities to thrive in the face of oppression.

Gus Thompson in 1947.

Gus Thompson in 1947.

(Norman Baynard Collection / San Diego History Center)

The legacy of allyship and support exemplified by the Thompsons extends to their willingness to assist Asian Americans facing similar discriminatory practices. This act of solidarity echoes the sentiment that in times of oppression, helping others regardless of race is not just a gesture but a necessity.

As the Dong family embraced their new home in Coronado, overcoming discrimination and forging their path to homeownership, they carried forward the spirit of resilience and unity shown to them by the Thompsons. The bond between these two families serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration in a society marred with division and prejudice.

The Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-style beach resort outside San Diego, and tent city on the beach, 1908.

The Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-style beach resort outside San Diego, and a tent city on the beach, 1908.

(Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

The resilience and determination displayed by the Dong family in the face of discrimination, coupled with their unwavering commitment to education and community upliftment, exemplify the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The decision to give back to the community through education underscores the transformative power of generosity and empathy in creating a more inclusive and equitable society.

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As the Dongs’ generous donation paves the way for future generations to access educational opportunities and resources, their story serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration for all who strive to overcome adversity and champion unity in the face of division.

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