The Costa Mesa Planning Commission examined a proposal Monday evening that could significantly reduce the number of allowable long-term motel tenants.
Because the city has largely met its most recent requirement to provide affordable housing, "it is no longer essential to authorize long-term stays" at motels to satisfy that mandate, according to city staff.
A state-mandated document called the Housing Element, which addresses citywide housing needs from 2013 to 2021, says Costa Mesa needs only two more low-income housing units. The figure is based what's called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which in 2008 said Costa Mesa needed to provide more than 600 low-income units.
Jerry Guarracino, interim assistant director of development services, cited successful affordable-housing programs as one reason Costa Mesa needs far fewer low-income units in the updated Housing Element, approved by the council earlier this year.
Costa Mesa permits most motels to set aside up to 25% of rooms for long-term use, defined as tenants who stay 28 consecutive days or 28 days within a 60-day period. Under proposed Planning Commission changes, that number could dwindle to zero.
The commission could also chose to modify the definition of a long-term stay from 28 to 30 days and mandate quarterly reports of long-term tenants.
Earlier this month, the commission declared that the Sandpiper Motel, 1967 Newport Blvd., was officially "operating as a public nuisance." With the declaration came a reduction in the amount of long-term lodging that the 44-room property could have, from 19 to 11.
City officials said the owner, Mike Lin, has appealed the matter to the council. The commission justified its decision partially on city code enforcement citations levied on the motel, which targeted among other things vermin infestation, hoarding and broken-window screens.
City officials stressed that their intent is not to relocate long-term motel tenants, who might otherwise face homelessness because of financial hardship. Officials have suggested grandfathering in existing motel tenants to prevent displacement.
The commissioners added that motel owners need to be held accountable for any deplorable conditions.
Commissioner Colin McCarthy said the discussion isn't about the tenants, but rather unsavory motel owners.
"That's not what I want to get lost in all the shuffle of this discussion," he said.
Added Commissioner Tim Sesler: "I don't want to continue to make excuses for well-documented, bad landlords" who are often "too cheap" to take care of their properties.
The motel residents "deserve good housing," Sesler said. "They deserve clean housing."
Five members of the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition spoke against the changes, calling them "drastic" measures that would have a "devastating effect" on the working poor, whom they referred to as "motel refugees."
Many cannot afford apartments, they said, because they can't come up with security deposits and first and last month's rent; others have bad credit because of past evictions.
"Long-term motel stays are needed because there is no other affordable-housing option for the working poor in Costa Mesa today," said Kathy Esfahani.
The coalition members were also critical of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment's findings, contending they do not address what some termed the "affordability gap" in Costa Mesa.
Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick said that while the coalition's goals are noble and all parties, including the commission, want to be compassionate to the less fortunate, no one can be painting a "pie in the sky, wonderful scenario" when it comes to Costa Mesa's problem motels.
The deplorable, small living conditions cannot be ignored, he said. Fitzpatrick added that motel owners should not be able to "shuffle" their long-term tenants every 28 days as a tactic to prevent them from officially having tenants' rights.
The commission and city staff will reexamine the proposed changes at a future meeting, though a date has not been set.
City officials said they may be looking to Buena Park as an example. There, permitted motels with long-term rooms must have safe deposit boxes, in-room telephones, maid services and a mail room, among other services. They also must contain at least 75 units.
Buena Park created its comprehensive policies to combat criminal activates taking place at motel properties, Guarracino said.