Motel residents sue Costa Mesa over ordinance limiting stays

An ordinance controlling the length of stays at motels in Costa Mesa was illegally designed to target low-income residents, a lawsuit filed Monday against the city alleges.

The Public Law Center, a Santa Ana-based pro bono law firm, sued on behalf of a group of residents to block an ordinance the City Council passed in August limiting when motel guests can rent a room longer 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 this 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 news release about the lawsuit.

The PLC plans to request an emergency stay of the ordinance at a hearing Tuesday.

Mayor Jim Righeimer, who led the 3-2 vote that passed the ordinance, said it’s a misinterpretation of the law to think it’s driving out poor residents.

“We’re not getting rid of any rooms,” he said. “We’re not getting rid of any beds.”

The idea behind the ordinance was to make long-term residents periodically take stock of their lives and consider where else they could live for the inflated amount they’re paying per square foot at a motel, Righeimer said.

“We care about these people more than they might realize,” he said, adding that the city is working with nonprofit partners to look for long-term housing options.

Attorney Lili Graham said living in motels is the last resort for her clients who are trying to avoid becoming homeless.

“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.”