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The city of Costa Mesa says it’s not going to tolerate dilapidated motels or delinquent hotel managers who allow their properties to become a health and safety hazard.

That’s why city inspectors are all over Costa Mesa, handing out notices of violations to many of these business owners.

Costa Mesa’s tough stance is taking on a kinder and gentler approach to what is a complicated problem.

While the city has been handing out thousands of dollars in fines recently to motel managers who’ve sometimes let their properties run into the ground, city leaders say they’ve found a way to force them to keep their properties up to code.

Jon Neal and Keith Clark could be called Costa Mesa’s version of “Men in Black.”

The city staffers scour the streets, ready to rid the road of motel and hotel managers and owners who are putting people at risk by allowing them to live in substandard conditions.

In fact, the city has fined 12 motels during onsite inspections in recent months, those that generated the most police and fire calls in the city, such as the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, the New Harbor Motel, the Harbor Bay Motel, the Sandpiper Motel and the Alibaba Motel.

“We did an inspection here just this last month, where we inspected every room in the hotel for property maintenance violations, health and safety or any other life-safety violations that exist at the motel,” said Neal, a city code enforcement officer.

“We found 21 of the rooms had smoke detector issues; they were not functioning properly or missing batteries or missing the smoke detector entirely,” he sasid. “We also found one room that had evidence of cockroaches. So we cited them immediately for those violations, which totaled $3,150.”

Clark said those were just a few of the many violations they see at some motels throughout Costa Mesa.

“Bedbugs, roaches, mold, hazardous electrical, screens on windows so insects don’t fly in,” said Clark, the city’s community improvement director.

Neal and Clark are part of the Neighborhood Improvement Task Force, a special program the city of Costa Mesa recently implemented.

The year-old task force does more than just code enforcement. It focuses on neighborhood assessment and improvement, sober living facilities and the hotels and motels.

Clark explained that the city wants to use a kind approach to be tough on violators.

Instead of going into one of these subpar motels “guns a-blazing,” Clark said, inspectors befriend both the managers and the tenants, all the while putting them on notice. 

“Our relationship with the hotel managers … is excellent. I have to say the managers of these hotels have really made an earnest effort to correct the violations. As a matter of fact, every time we write a violation, we’re getting about 100-percent compliance from these hotel managers,” said Clark.

“They’ve been very cooperative, and now I think we’re at the point where we’re working in partnership with them, not to mention the tenants. The tenants have really come out and expressed their appreciation of making their hotel room a safer and better place to live.”

Tenants at the Alibaba recently greeted the Men in Black and thanked them for working with the motels to make their living conditions a little better.

But this situation is also complicated.

Motels like the Alibaba see their fair share of undesirable tenants, such as drug dealers and criminals and have managers who often times look the other way to make a buck.

At the same time, they also see their share of tenants who are the working poor or homeless and have nowhere else to live. The motels are their only lifeline to shelter.

Muriel Ullman, a housing and homelessness consultant for Costa Mesa, says the city has been one of the most proactive in Orange County in trying to help the homeless, such as working with churches and nonprofits to get special services for the homeless and handing out their cell phone numbers.

“Homeless people are not an opaque body of people. They have many different issues. There’s mentally ill ones, there’s ones that are addicted, there’s people that just need a hand up not a handout, people who have been plagued by large medical bills [and] just need to get back to work,” said Ullman. “They’re not all one people; there’s not all one solution.”

Mayor Jim Righeimer said the city’s yearslong issues hadn’t been looked at holistically.

“So we started to look at every issue that we had and see how it all tied together. And so we started working with departments in the city and actually set up a special code enforcement group to help us with this,” said Righeimer.

An employee at the Alibaba Motel said its manager wasn’t available to comment.

The fines aren’t cheap. Health and life safety violations carry a standard fine of $150 per violation per room, and if the motels don’t fix the problem within 10 days, the fine doubles.

If it’s not corrected within 10 days after that, the fine doubles again.

This story was adapted for print by Nick Gerda.

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