Costa Mesa OKs Problem Motel Ordinance

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The Costa Mesa city council approved new regulations Tuesday night in a continuing crack down on long-term occupancy motels that generate excessive emergency calls to the police or fire department.

The council voted 3-2 to adopt the ordinance, with councilmembers Wendy Leece and Sandra Genis voting no.

Costa Mesa long has debated what to do with a dozen motels within city limits, citing “problematic” concerns with policing costs, code violations and poor living conditions.

In 2013, for example, officials said the Costa Mesa Motor Inn had 497 calls for service, the most of any motel in the city.

Earlier this year, Costa Mesa adopted a $360 per call fine for problem long term rental motels, which city officials claim reduced the number of police calls by 15 percent in the first quarter of 2014.

Among the new regulations:

• Limit rentals to a 30-day period

• Limit room rentals to one reservation per day

• Require guests to provide their name, permanent address and car license number

• Require regularly scheduled maid, mail and housekeeping service

• Require each room to have a kitchen area, including: a sink, stove top, oven or microwave, and refrigerator

• Require a minimum of 75 rooms to qualify for a permit

Critics argued the ordinance unfairly targets low-income and homeless families for whom motels are a last resort. Orange County has 1,235 homeless children living in motels, according to a 2012-13 estimate by the Orange County Department of Education. 

“The truth of the matter is we’re reducing the stock of housing for people that are at risk. While it may not be defined as low-income housing, we have inadequate amounts of low income housing,” said resident Jay Humphrey, who is also a candidate for city council.

Leece characterized the ordinance as amounting to “harassment” of small business owners and needy families. She and Genis both questioned whether targeting long-term occupancies would eliminate the source of the problem.

“There is the presumption that criminals and drug users and other people who have come to Costa Mesa to do criminal activity and inhabit these motels, but that’s not based on any facts, it’s just a presumption,” said Leece. “To pass this, we are going to impact and unfairly discriminate protected classes – people who are a stone’s throw from living on the street. I think we need a plan for affordable housing, if we go forward with this.”

A few residents said the ordinance placed too great a burden on motel owners.

“What I find really strange about this ordinance is it deprives small businesses of their livelihood, and that seems like an odd thing from a conservative,” said resident Robin Leffler. “I saw a motel owner who over-complied with every single code violation to overcompensate…it seems punitive. Yes there should be regulation, but to take away their livelihood doesn’t seem right.”

Mayor Jim Righeimer, who has been behind the push to clean up motels, called the problem motel owners “slumlords” who hide behind the poor to avoid keeping their motels up to a certain standard.

“Let’s be very clear about this, motels are 28 days or less. They’re not apartments. We do not want people living for four, five or six months,” said Righeimer. “I’m willing to work on the societal problems…but I’m not willing to let our motels become flophouses.”

“If you’re living in a motel, something in your life isn’t working. There’s a problem that you have – it could be any number of things, a mental issue, a drug issue – and you should be reminded every 28 days, this isn’t working in your life. Not one bed, not one room, is being removed from the city. You just can’t stay there long term,” Righeimer added.

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