By Kathy Esfahani
12:32 PM PDT, May 17, 2014
Saturday's front page story, "Proposal: apartments in place of Motor Inn," reporting that the owner of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn wants to replace its motel rooms with luxury apartments is an ominous sign of things to come, but not surprising.
In the past five weeks, Costa Mesa has moved aggressively to decrease long-term stays at many of the city's independent motels, located mostly along Harbor and Newport boulevards.
The Costa Mesa Planning Commission has been clear that it does not want to affect upscale extended-stay facilities catering to the affluent, such as the Residence Inn by Marriott. Instead, the city is targeting for a slow death to all of the small, mostly family owned motels, where Costa Mesa's working poor find last-resort housing. After a foreclosure or eviction, these motels are often their only alternative to homelessness.
On April 14, the Planning Commission revoked a conditional use permit granted by the city to the Sandpiper Motel in 1999, allowing 40% of its rooms to be rented for extended stays (longer than 28 consecutive days or 28 days in a 60-day period).
On April 28, the commission considered a new ordinance that would effectively ban all extended stays at the city's downscale independent motels. The proposed ordinance is likely to supersede the existing zoning law allowing these motels to use 25% of their rooms for extended stays, and impose a new requirement for a conditional use permit before a motel could use rooms for long-term occupancy.
The hitch, I believe, is that none of the affected motels would be able to get the permit. Planning commissioners expressed strong interest in adding requirements in the proposed ordinance (like a minimum room size of 480 square feet, minimum motel size of 75 rooms, on-site or immediately adjacent restaurant) that these motels couldn't meet.
On Tuesday, the City Council is expected to hear the Sandpiper's appeal of the decision to revoke its conditional use permit. If the council majority, led by Mayor Jim Righeimer, affirms that decision as expected, the Planning Commission has signaled its intent to move quickly to revoke the Costa Mesa Motor Inn's conditional use permit –– the last one allowing a motel to use 40% of its rooms for long-term stays.
When that permit is lost, then the Motor Inn, like the Sandpiper, will be in the same boat as the other small motels –– at risk of having to shut down and sell because its business model has been destroyed by a new city regulation.
Costa Mesa residents should be outraged at the city's all-out assault on the motels. The proposed ordinance to end long-term stays would not only hurt the working poor, it would allow a stunning governmental intrusion into the operations of small businesses and lead to staggering legal fees as the city defends itself in the litigation sure to follow.
We should have seen this coming. For months, the mayor and his allies have conducted a loud campaign to shut down these so-called problem motels. They have complained of excessive police and fire service calls and staged high-profile inspections to publicize conditions at the 44-room Sandpiper and the 236-room Motor Inn.
The mayor has used elderly "hoarders" as proof that motels are unhealthy, bad places for children and families to live. But the mayor fails to answer the logical follow-up question: Does Costa Mesa have any alternative housing for these motel families? Is a child better off living in a car than in a motel room with bed, bathroom and kitchenette?
Costa Mesa has a critical shortage of affordable housing for very-low-income families. The 2013-21 housing element that the city recently adopted makes that clear through many alarming statistics. For example, the high cost of housing in Costa Mesa leaves hundreds of families paying more than 50% of their income for housing. Many renter households have "severe" overcrowding.
Motels are not affordable housing. Paying for a motel room takes a big bite out of a low-wage worker's income. But a motel offers a family the opportunity to move in and pay a week at a time. The family can stay as long as it needs to while working to save enough money to move on to better housing. Undoubtedly, motels are not ideal places to live long-term, but a motel sure beats living on the street.
The mayor insists that no poor people will suffer as a result of the proposed ordinance because existing motel residents will be grandfathered in. But the average long-term stay at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, which now has about 90 extended-stay rooms, is four to six months. That means within a year most of these rooms will turn over.
Under the proposed ordinance, once an existing long-term resident moves out, the room can no longer be used for extended stays. Before long, all extended-stay rooms at the Motor Inn and the others would be lost forever.
Bad consequences would follow. Some motels, perhaps most, would go out of business because their business model depended on steady income from extended stays. (Witness the Costa Mesa Motor Inn's preemptive application to change its use from motel to luxury apartments.) Costa Mesa's homeless problem would grow as low-income families are evicted and have no place to move.
The ordinance would thus create a new class of Costa Mesa residents: motel refugees, forced to move from one motel to another every 30 days. Children would especially suffer as the insecurity of forced transiency compounds the trauma of a recent eviction from the apartment that had been home.
If the city wants to address the problem of poor conditions at some motels, it can do so by less drastic means than ending all long-term stays. Frequent inspections for code violations will help. Even better, allow more long-term stays, because when motel residents gain tenancy rights after 30 days, they can demand repairs and improvements without fear of being told their motel stay is over and they must check out.
All Costa Mesa residents with a heart for the poor and a brain for smart public policy should demand that the city stop acting to limit long-term motel stays. Costa Mesa must increase affordable housing opportunities, not destroy a source of existing housing that fills a critical need.
KATHY ESFAHANI is a member of the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition and founding board member of the Public Law Center of Orange County.