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For Elliot, living at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn has been a return to dignity.
The high school student and his family lost their home after his father, a former realtor, lost his job in 2008. They were forced to live in cars, and then a storage unit, before they came upon the Motor Inn.
“We were able to go up to a motel, a place with running water and air conditioning. That’s what our dad was trying to do for us, claw his way up to where he was,” he said.
Elliot, who did not want his full name published, is among the residents of the Motor Inn who shared their experiences with “Motel Stories,” a short film project aimed at highlighting the potential impact of a plan by the city to demolish the motel and replace it with high-density apartments.
That has prompted protests from some residents, including a group called the Costa Mesan Affordable Housing Coalition, who want the city to require the development to devote 20 percent of its units to low-income housing.
The Motor Inn is one of about a dozen Costa Mesa motels that have drawn an excessive number of police calls, prompting a debate over what to do with the dilapidated properties and their code violations and poor housing conditions.
In 2013, the Costa Mesa Motor Inn had 497 calls for service, the most of any motel in the city, according to city officials. Early last year, the City Council adopted an “Excessive Use of Resources” ordinance that fines motels that exceed a certain threshold of calls for police service, and limits rentals to 30 days.
While advocates say these policies unfairly target low-income and homeless families for whom motels are a last resort, some on the City Council say the focus should be on the motel’s outsized use of city resources that could be going elsewhere.
“The people protesting [the project] are well-meaning, but they don’t really understand that the Costa Mesa Motor Inn is no place to raise a family,” said Mayor Steve Mensinger. “Our objective is to replace crime-ridden housing and something that’s costing the community millions, with something that can house people — and some of it is affordable. Adequate, modern and affordable.”
Kathy Esfahani, who organized the hour-long protest film screening Thursday night, said that response is not enough.
Esfahani wants city leaders to invoke a state density bonus law that allows developers to exceed local density requirements for a property if they agree to devote a certain percentage of units to low-income housing.
Although the 4.15 acre property is currently zoned for 20 units per acre, the proposed apartment project would have 54 units per acre.
“None of the people who are current residents of the Motor Inn will be able to live in those apartments, and we think that is wrong,” said Esfahani, who considers the project a “giveaway” to the developer.
“We think there’s a legal challenge there — it’s not anything that’s been explored or attempted, but we’re talking to lawyers,” she said.
Mensinger said the Motor Inn owner, Los Angeles-based Miracle Mile Properties, has gone “out of its way” to accommodate long-term residents. Residents will receive relocation packages of up to $5,500.
The motel also timed its August 2016 closing date so that children living in the motel can finish school before finding a new place to live, according to The Daily Pilot.
Mensinger says the City Council still needs to address what affordable housing in the city would look like. “We can wish all day long for housing for homeless or veterans, but we have to be able to pay for it — we have to find the funding,” he said.
Asked whether he would support requiring developers to devote a certain percentage of their projects to affordable housing, Mensinger was noncommittal.
“That’s a loaded question and very broad — it depends on what’s being built and how, so I can’t really give you a yes or no,” he said. “Somebody has to pay for it — is it going to be taxpayers? If it’s on city land, maybe it should be affordable. But if it’s not, then how do you require one developer to do one thing but not another?”
At Thursday evening’s film screening, Esfahani’s son Ryan, who led the film project, said he hoped the project would change how the city council viewed the city’s motel residents, who are not just prostitutes and drug users, he said.
“Maybe if [Councilman Jim] Righeimer had heard people’s stories he wouldn’t have thought, yeah, people can just move every 28 days,” Ryan Esfahani said.
Ron, a Motor Inn resident on Social Security, spoke in one film about growing gentrification where he used to live in Brooklyn, New York. He said the City Council should be concerned about how new properties displace long-term residents like himself.
“What I’d like to see the city do differently is ensure that everyone can live in some sort of dignity. You need something that’s decent, that encourages people and gives them a reason to live,” said Ron. “The Costa Mesa Motor Inn has been good to me.”
View all the “Motel Stories” on the project’s Youtube page.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.