Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Vic Bakkila chats with World War II veteran David Garland about his living conditions at the Sandpiper Motel in Costa Mesa. Bakkila made an effort to connect Garland with veteran services to improve his living situation. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / May 7, 2013)

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"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.

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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.