A recently enacted law that limits how long people can stay at motels in Costa Mesa was illegally designed to target low-income residents, a lawsuit filed against the city alleges.
The Public Law Center, a Santa Ana-based pro bono law firm, sued this week on behalf of a group of residents to block an ordinance adopted last August limiting when motel guests can rent a room for more than 30 days.
Under the ordinance, which took effect last month, motel owners must apply for a conditional use permit to allow any new long-term tenants. To be granted a permit, the motel must meet requirements such as providing on-site laundry facilities, installing kitchens in every room and having at least 75 rooms.
The organization contends the local law exacerbates a shortage of low-income housing in Orange County and violates state and federal housing and disability laws.
"For years, the motels have acted as a much-needed safety net for people facing financial hardship as a result of losing their jobs or work-related injuries," the Public Law Center said in a statement.
An Orange County judge Tuesday denied the law firm's request for an emergency restraining order to block the motel law, meaning the matter probably will be settled at trial.
In court, attorney Mark Erickson cited the story of Sally Ozuna, a 72-year-old woman with a failing liver who tried to live at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn on Harbor Boulevard.
"We simply do not have the money to pay for first and last month's rent and security deposit on an apartment," Ozuna, who uses a wheelchair, wrote in a declaration.
She and her caretaker son left Costa Mesa after they were told they would have to leave the room they had rented within 30 days.
"I cannot handle the physical labor of monthly moves from motel to motel without worsening my health," Ozuna said.
But Ozuna acknowledges that the ordinance didn't force her into homelessness, Chris Neumeyer, the city's attorney, told the judge.
"They haven't shown anybody who was kicked out on the street who is now homeless because of this law," Neumeyer said.
Mayor Jim Righeimer, who led the 3-2 vote to adopt the ordinance, said it was a misinterpretation to think that it was targeted at driving out poor people.
"We're not getting rid of any rooms," he said. "We're not getting rid of any beds."
The idea behind the ordinance, the mayor said, was to make long-term residents periodically take stock of their lives and consider where else they could live for the inflated amount they were paying per square foot at a motel.
Lili Graham, an attorney with the Public Law Center, scoffed at the idea.
"The mayor speaks as if all of his city's residents have a choice in being poor and, after evaluating their life at the end of 30 days, they can then magically live in a house or an apartment," she said. "That is not the reality for our clients."