Are Motor Inn families on borrowed time?
Three hundred square feet.
That’s all the space that serves as bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom for families, sometimes of three or more, at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn.
For these mothers, fathers and children, who range from infants to teens, the cramped quarters in the Harbor Boulevard motel are not ideal, but it’s all they say they can afford.
And time could be running out.
“I’ve lived here eight years,” resident Pam Benson said. “My youngest was born here. And now, they’re making me leave.”
Last week, the city Planning Commission signed off on plans to demolish the 236-room Motor Inn and replace it with 224 luxury apartments. The City Council, the final arbiter in the approval process, tentatively plans to consider the project Nov. 3.
It’s a decision that the Motor Inn families say would leave them with two options — leave Costa Mesa, where their kids go to school, in search of more affordable housing, or remain in the city, possibly homeless.
City officials in favor of the reuse plan, however, argue that the motels, initially built for tourists, were never intended as long-term housing — particularly for families with young children — and have attracted drug users and a criminal element. Police, they say, spend a disproportionate amount of time at the motel and others like it.
The families are caught in between.
Benson’s three children have migrated throughout Orange County motels all their lives. The family of five crowds into a single room.
“I’ve never known what it’s like to live in a house,” her oldest daughter said. “It’s always been motels for us, but I don’t blame my parents for that. I just learned a lot at a very young age.”
The Costa Mesa High School student, whom the Daily Pilot agreed not to identify, promised herself to never do drugs after seeing the wrinkled, skinny and sometimes toothless faces of substances abusers staying at the inn.
The 17-year-old manages schoolwork, a job at a grocery store and a spot on one of Mesa’s sports teams. The busy schedule is freeing; it takes her away from the motel.
Motor Inn resident Amanda Haupert said the inn is her family’s most affordable option. The place allows her boyfriend a reasonable commute to work, her 18-month old daughter shelter, and her 7-year-old son an easy trip to College Park Elementary School.
For three years, the family has tried to find a comparable Costa Mesa apartment that offers those attributes — without success.
“I want to be a cop when I grow up,” said Haupert’s son, whose favorite subject is math. “Because they help people.”
Haupert suspects this is because her son often sees police officers at the motel. In 2012, for example, the Motor Inn generated 568 calls for service, the most of any motel in the city. (Most recent statistics were not immediately available Wednesday.)
She mentions less-desirable visitors, of the six-legged variety, as well.
“My son made a macaroni necklace from school, and we put it in the drawer,” Haupert said. “The next time I opened it, there were roaches everywhere. They like paper too. They were all over my son’s school certificates and report cards I wanted to save.”
Surrounding the one king-size bed in their motel room are mountains of folded clothes, papers and plastic bins filled with toys. In the back, a mini-fridge hums in the closet, and an electric skillet rests on the counter of the only sink.
Some rooms, like the one rented by Theresa Dickinson, offer kitchenettes with sinks, two-burner stoves, microwaves and mini-fridges.
Dickinson moved in with her teenage daughter a year ago when she separated from her husband. She was unemployed, and the motel allowed her to rent a room.
“People think drug addicts and criminals end up in the motel, but it’s mostly families who are here,” said Dickinson, who now works as a dispatcher for a towing company. “Families who have just had it rough.”
Should they have to leave Costa Mesa, Dickinson and her daughter will head to San Bernardino, where they can stay with family. That would likely mean a new school.
“She’s on the honor roll at school, and I don’t want to disturb that,” Dickinson said of her daughter. “I want her to graduate with all her friends.”
Students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District may be able to find some relief if their residency unexpectedly changes.
“We tackle this on a case-by-case basis and will work with them to figure things out so students are able to further their education here,” district spokeswoman Annette Franco said.
Tentatively, the Motor Inn is scheduled to close Aug. 1, and its long-term residents are set to receive as much as $5,500 worth of relocation assistance, which includes about three months worth of rent returned to them.
Haupert’s family pays about $1,088 a month, for example, while Dickinson’s pays over $1,200 a month.
Comparable alternatives are hard to find. Orange County’s average rent in April, according to the Los Angeles Times, was $1,660 a month.
One planning commissioner, however, stressed that the Motor Inn is unsafe for long-term tenancy.
“This is a conversion of a property that’s been a drain on city resources,” said Planning Commission Chairman Robert Dickson. “For years, this location has been a problem property with numerous documented health and safety concerns. It is not safe for the people who are living there.”
Speaking of the city’s dilapidated motels in 2014, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer defended the city’s efforts to replace them.
“We are compassionate people … but this is not a way to run a business,” he said. “This is not a way to run a city. This is not a way to run these properties.”
The motel is owned by Los Angles-based Miracle Mile Properties. They plan to spend $50 million on the conversion.
In reaction to the motel’s possible elimination, the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition will hold a protest at 5 p.m. Thursday outside the Motor Inn.
“We’re asking for the city to require the developer, as a condition of approving the project, to have 20% be affordable units for low- and very low-income families,” said the coalition’s Kathy Esfahani. “These are working families who cannot find affordable housing.”
In the meantime, residents are trying to plan their next moves.
“We’ll just play by ear, probably live in another motel,” Benson’s oldest daughter said. “Either way, I want to leave. I want to go to college and become a radiologist. I just don’t want my kids living the same way I did.”