The Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday approved the first reading of an ordinance that would require motels to seek new permits and maintain new standards if they wish to house long-term tenants.
While supporters argued that the rules would help make motel rooms more livable, a host of detractors — including Councilwomen Sandy Genis and Wendy Leece, who dissented on the vote — contended that the requirements were arbitrary and would hurt those who rely on motels as a last-resort housing option before homelessness.
The ordinance, approved by the Planning Commission last month, would define long-term as 30 consecutive days or 30 days in a 60-day period.
It would require — for long-term tenants — rooms that are at least 375 square feet, kitchens, regularly scheduled housekeeping, on-site laundry and mail services, and fireproof safety deposit boxes.
The law was crafted from similar standards adopted in other cities, including Buena Park, according to city staff.
Councilman Gary Monahan, who along with Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger supported the ordinance, decried the living conditions at some of the motels in the city.
According to recent code enforcement inspections, violations at motels have included broken smoke detectors, missing window screens, grime, mold, insect infestation and, in severe cases, hoarding. The ordinance would create minimum standards, Monahan said.
"You're going to take care of the place," he said. "You're not going to be a rat trap."
Affordable-housing advocates from Costa Mesa, the Kennedy Commission and Santa Ana-based Public Law Center said the changes would hurt the vulnerable poor who rely on the motels because they cannot afford other options, including apartments that may require a deposit along with the first month's rent.
The ordinance "would exacerbate the already-critical shortage of affordable housing in Orange County, particularly in Costa Mesa," said Zeenat Hassan of the Public Law Center.
Kathy Esfahani of the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition urged the council to enact a two-year moratorium on limiting long-term motel stays, during which time all involved parties could craft affordable-housing solutions.
Leece made a motion to that effect but was warned by City Atty. Tom Duarte that the idea would have to be properly placed on the council agenda in accordance with state law before a vote could be held.
She then requested a delay on the matter, calling the law "mean-spirited" for a city that is compassionate toward its diverse population. Her suggestion failed, with Righeimer, Mensinger and Monahan dissenting.
Genis questioned the need for the ordinance, noting that no data has shown that long-term tenants are the source of crime at motels. She added that some of the requirements are "overkill" — like the 375-square-foot minimum room size — and "not entirely reasonable" for most Costa Mesa motels.
Righeimer was critical of the notion that motels are affordable. At $60 a night, a month's rent runs up to $1,800, he said.
The mayor added that he's "on board" with holding discussions about affordable housing and acknowledged that with this new ordinance, some people could have to move from motel to motel.
He also stressed that the ordinance would not reduce the number of motel rooms or displace any current long-term tenants whose rooms don't meet the new requirements.
At one point in the discussion, Monahan turned to Leece — who had called the motel standards an overreaching government intrusion — and suggested that she "spend a couple nights" at the Alibaba Motel.
"To sit here and just act like, you know, we're doing this great thing for people that can't afford to live, and it's emergency housing and long-term or whatever, that's not what's going on out there," Monahan said.