By Lauren Williams and Jill Cowan
5:57 PM PDT, September 21, 2013
First story in an occasional series about Costa Mesa's troubled motels.
The letter was a desperate plea to the police chief. The owner of a Harbor Boulevard motel admitted his business attracted less-than-reputable guests.
"Under such difficult circumstances, we have no other choice but to rent to second-rate customers," he wrote.
Though a missive like that could have easily been written yesterday, it was penned more than two decades ago by Ming Cheng Chen, owner of the Kon Tiki Motel.
Not much has changed since Chen put his thoughts to paper, hoping police would end their opposition to his proposal to expand — and improve — the property. To be sure, the Kon Tiki has a different name today — the New Harbor Inn — but the same old problems described in that letter persist.
The motel at 2205 Harbor Blvd. is No. 1 for police calls per room among such establishments citywide.
Meanwhile, Costa Mesa's largest motel, the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, lodged more than 1,487 calls for service from 2009 through 2011. In August, the city leveled 490 alleged health-and-safety violations against the 236-room motel and more than $40,000 in fines.
In 2010 alone, emergency responders were dispatched there 552 times. A typical week then saw calls related to unconscious guests, domestic disputes, drugs, intoxication and arrest warrants.
The New Harbor Inn and the Motor Inn are just two of 12 Costa Mesa motels that have recently been identified by city officials as siphoning off disproportionate levels of police resources. In 2011, the motels accounted for 1,677 calls for service — an average of just under five per day.
"They were built for people going to the beach," said Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer. "They're not obsolete financially — they're obsolete functionally."
Righeimer, the City Council and the Planning Commission have made addressing motels a priority. At Tuesday's council meeting, the mayor identified two — the Motor Inn and the Sandpiper Motel, on Newport Boulevard — and directed the commission to examine their operating permits.
Jim Fitzpatrick, chairman of the Planning Commission, cites the Newport Boulevard Specific Plan of 1996, which sought to identify a long-term vision for that thoroughfare after the completion of the 55 Freeway. The plan cites an "undesirable" clientele coming to the boulevard and creating "adverse impacts on neighboring commercial uses and adjacent residential areas."
And though the plan was adopted some 17 years ago, "You change the dates and it reads like it was today," Fitzpatrick said.
Elected and appointed officials haven't made it a secret that they would like motels that cannot comply with more-stringent standards to be sold — hopefully to owners who would change their use.
"This council is not passive," Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger said. "You don't take on a problem that doesn't have a solution on the horizon."
Mensinger said he envisions "within 10 years" most of the properties being successfully repurposed as student and senior housing, parks or commercial developments.
Complex issue, elusive solutions
The issue of what to do with the motels is as complex as the chain of poverty that keeps them in business. The inns — many of them built in the middle of the last century —are stop-gap housing for those with few other options. The bargain rooms are preferable to the streets.
Though the motels were built for short stays, throngs of working and homeless families, often with children, live among drug dealers, prostitutes and sometimes-violent criminals because they cannot afford apartment rents and security deposits.
"There's children, there's families here, there's nice families," said Will Hayden, who was living in the Motor Inn this spring after losing his job following an injury that left him bedridden and without insurance. "People think these people are just scum, and they're not."
City officials and homeless advocates say it is largely the group of which Hayden speaks that they want to help, particularly those people who at one time lived in Costa Mesa.
Though they disagree on many issues, Righeimer and Councilwoman Wendy Leece have both said in previous interviews that their goal is to take care of the city's own, but that Costa Mesa doesn't have the resources to absorb the downtrodden that funnel in from other communities.
But how do you help the truly needy and, at the same time, drive out the truly criminal? It's a question that has plagued Costa Mesa for decades now.
If the city has no magic bullet, it is battling the motel problem in several smaller ways.
The multiagency Neighborhood Improvement Task Force, which has been asked to advise the city, has helped to identify problem motel locations, such as those that draw high numbers of prostitutes or parolees.
The city is also putting
a strong emphasis on code enforcement, with officers uncovering thousands of violations ranging from missing exit signs to rooms turned into unlivable hoarders' nests.
The Planning Commission and council have also recently moved along an ordinance that would streamline enforcement against "chronic" public nuisances, which could include motels. The ordinance, described by officials as something that would be sparingly used and is commonplace among other cities, faces additional council approval before adoption.
Costa Mesa also is eyeing government and private-sector partnerships that would involve working with developers, encouraging them to invest in troubled motel sites, among other shorter-term salves.
Purchasing a property outright provides another means of creating change. About $1 million — half from the federal government and half from the city — has been set aside to buy at least one decaying property and create housing that offers support services.
But getting motel owners to sell is a difficult proposition. There is often little financial incentive to replace the motels with other businesses.
One developer who helped tear down a Harbor Boulevard motel on land his company owned to build what's now a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in 2008 said getting motel owners to sell what essentially amounts to low-maintenance, high-rent cash cows is a tall order.
"For [a motel owner] to have to generate the same cash flow, there's going to have to come a better deal on another property," said Bill Lang of Commerce Realty in Redondo Beach. "You're going to have to make it worth their while."
Of course, he said, "That's the beauty of this country: You have property rights. Government can't dictate whether they buy or sell. ... They can't just look at a piece of property and say, 'Gee, I wish that was a park.'"
But as discussion builds over what to do about the motels, homeless advocates have their own concerns. As bad as conditions are at some of the motels, they say, Costa Mesa's poor still need a place to live — and there is a shortage of charitable and public options countywide.
The difficult dozen
Although the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, 2277 Harbor Blvd., draws the lion's share of motel emergency calls, some people caution that a place with 77 more rooms than the city's second-largest motel would necessarily see more activity by sheer virtue of its density.
When the numbers are broken down, the Motor Inn averaged 6.3 calls per room over a three-year span — the seventh highest when compared with other motels.
Hector Almaraz, who has managed the Costa Mesa Motor Inn for about eight years, said it's not his role to pick and choose customers.
"We don't judge anybody," said. "We are a motel. We can't legally run background checks. We can't run credit checks."
Almaraz said that despite the Motor Inn's status, earned or not, as an exemplar of the kind of crime magnet council members hope to clean up, his staff maintains a "great relationship with everybody here in the city."
By comparison, the smaller, 32-room New Harbor Inn averaged 16.4 calls per room from 2009 to 2011, while the 44-room Sandpiper Motel, 1967 Newport Blvd., averaged 8.2 calls per room over the same time period.
The owners of the New Harbor declined to comment.
Officials note that the number of calls for service doesn't necessarily correlate with increased crime. Sometimes increased proactive patrols can boost calls, and not all emergency calls require the same amount of time and resources as others.
Furthermore, officials say, not all of the 12 motels identified as problematic face the same issues.
Officers conducting patrol checks at the Ana Mesa Inn, at Harbor and MacArthur boulevards, along Costa Mesa's border with Santa Ana, often keep an eye out for parole violators or drop in on sex offenders registered as living there.
At the La Quinta Inn on South Coast Drive, crime is more often "vice-related bad stuff," said Assistant City CEO Rick Francis, who heads the task force.
By that, he means the motel sees more prostitution than others and has fewer families living there.
As a result, Costa Mesa Police Department and city officials hesitate to throw out cost-per-call estimates, or to estimate what percentage of the city's law enforcement work involves motels.
They can, however, confirm that policing the motels is a substantial part of their jobs. Just as officers could 20 years ago — when Chen wrote his letter to the city.
—Daily Pilot Staff Writer Bradley Zint also contributed to this report.
Coming Wednesday: Part II will examine what the city of Costa Mesa and various helping agencies are trying to do to help improve the city's 12 problematic motels.