Motel operators: ‘We need to make our living’

The Sandpiper Motel sits next to Newport Boulevard and the 55 Freeway in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach, Daily Pilot)

Second story in an occasional series about Costa Mesa’s troubled motels.

On a typical weekend evening at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, kids scamper through the labyrinthine courtyard as pairs of neighbors lean on walkway railings, smoking and chatting in the fading light.

Potted plants sit on window sills and on air conditioning units mounted on the stucco walls. Colorful, makeshift curtains cover windows.

Inside one of the rooms, the odor from decades of people smoking cigarettes wafts from the carpet with each step and then lingers in the generic floral bedspread. A faucet in another room squeaks. A broken window above the room’s flaking shower allows in music from the parking lot outside.

The room is missing its “means of egress” sign — the one that would show a way out of the complex.

Costa Mesa city and police officials, as well as advocates who help the homeless, are looking for their own egress of sorts — a way out of the motel troubles that have drained city resources for years.

As scrutiny of Costa Mesa’s spending has intensified, so has heat directed at the city’s 12 so-called problem motels, a term that critics dismiss as insensitive to the struggling people who call them home.

City leaders, who say they want to help the poor who are actually from Costa Mesa, have taken a strong stance against the establishments, which they see as sucking up police and emergency service providers’ time.

Council members have said cleaning up the motels is at the top of their to-do list.

“What are cities supposed to provide? They’re supposed to provide services,” said Steve Mensinger, Costa Mesa’s mayor pro tem. “If services are being impaired because of a particular business’ use, government has an obligation” to step in.

Still, the question remains: How?

It’s one that has bedeviled some of Orange County’s biggest cities for decades, as motels that once drew tourists have slowly morphed into overstuffed de facto low-income housing, filling a countywide void.

The answer for Costa Mesa could be a combination of salves — some modeled on strategies taken up by other cities, some a bit more novel.

Ultimately, Mensinger said, Costa Mesa is taking what he called “a more holistic approach as opposed to just code enforcement only.”

The conventional process of issuing notice after notice of code violations, giving proprietors a grace period to correct problems before they must pay fines, isn’t working, he said.

So, he said, “what we’re going to do is look at the best way to charge the max amount of money to recover our cost when a motel goes beyond what is considered normal.”

In the works are efforts to cut down on that grace period for repeat code offenders and develop strategies for holding motel operators accountable for the resources drawn by motel guests and residents that are beyond standard levels — among other measures.

These are aimed at convincing operators to, as Mensinger put it, “contribute to our community in the right way.”

“Our approach is, if you want to be a motel that appeals to visitors to the community, just like any business, and be a part of the fabric of our city, that’s great,” he said.

“If you want to collect cash and serve as a way-stop for parolees, that’s something else.”


Redevelopment not an option?

One solution that city leaders have teased repeatedly is encouraging private-sector developers to buy out motels for reuse as low-income, senior or student housing.

Scattered past efforts to redevelop motels have proved relatively successful: The Costa Mesa Village at 2450 Newport Blvd., for example, was a Travelodge in its past life.

It was converted to the county’s first single-room occupancy hotel in the early 1990s.

On Newport Boulevard, what was once the Sea Breeze Motel was transformed in 2000 into the Newport Senior Village, for low-income seniors.

Some efforts, however, have sputtered.

As early as 1991, proposals were floated to convert other motels, such as the Costa Mesa Motor Inn at 2277 Harbor Blvd., into senior or low-income housing. They didn’t pan out.

Now, though, such proposals may see renewed life — even as some people caution against putting too much faith in the private sector’s willingness to buy an operating business if raw land is available and ready to build on.

One way to spark interest could come in the form of “node overlay zones,” which would create incentives for a motel property to be demolished and redeveloped as a residential project, according to Assistant Development Services Director Claire Flynn.

Nevertheless, Costa Mesa could be in for a long and difficult road if the city opts to pursue private redevelopment.

Buena Park — which Costa Mesa officials have pointed to as a possible model for dealing with motels — made halting progress over four years to eventually purchase six ailing motels in the city’s Beach Boulevard entertainment corridor for $32 million.

Buena Park economic development administrator Ruben Lopez warned that that was accomplished using redevelopment money — a tax-generated cash pool aimed at helping cities revitalize struggling areas that, thanks to a much-maligned move by the state, is no longer available to most cities.

"[Motels] are difficult to get ahold of,” said Joel Rosen, Buena Park’s community development director. “It didn’t happen overnight.”

Construction has begun on one site, which is slated to become a mixed-use complex, and the city “just got initial approval” to evaluate proposals to build new, tourist-friendly hotels, restaurants or entertainment venues on the others, he said.

Like Costa Mesa’s leaders, Lopez said Buena Park council members had become so fed up with the police calls and blight at the establishments lining what was once a tourist destination that they were willing to spend on a costly solution.

“The council felt it was such a priority, even if we had to pay a little over market,” he said. But, he said, “in today’s economy, cities cannot afford to go out and buy real estate.”

Lopez said private developers, even with encouragement, might be hard to come by if they have to front enough money to buy out a current business owner.

“Developers aren’t willing to pay that higher value for property,” Lopez said. “Because let’s face it, they’re going to have to tear [a motel] down anyway.”.

But Michael Reazzudin, who took over what was perhaps Buena Park’s most notorious establishment, the Crescent Motel, said turning around a troubled property is possible.

The Crescent had been locked in a legal battle with the city, which had tried to revoke its operating permit.

Still, Reazzudin said the work he’s put into remodeling the motel, now called the Best Host Inn, has made a tremendous difference — and in ways that are achievable for other cities.


Code enforcement

In the meantime, Costa Mesa city officials say they do what they can to clean up motels.

Assistant City Manager Rick Francis stressed in an interview that the city’s Code Enforcement Department is bound to follow the law and that specific establishments aren’t “targeted.”

Nevertheless, the department has, over the decades, issued hundreds of citations and warnings to the 12 motels.

Stacks of notices to their operators list a veritable cornucopia of complaints, like mold in bathrooms, holes in walls, discarded mattresses left outside and exposed wiring. Inspection reports list pools of standing water on-site.

Black-and-white photos show suspicious dark spots coloring patches of carpet, while others show rooms packed from floor to ceiling with junk — boxes and empty food and drink containers — and with clothes strewn throughout. Those are labeled “hoarder conditions.”

Some area motel operators have been accused of doing what’s called the “28-day shuffle,” requiring guests to check out before the end of the month to remain in compliance with city laws and prevent the guests from becoming tenants under state law and therefore privy to those rights.

The documents detail similar complaints over many years, and in some cases, decades.

But as laws stand, even if a motel is cited repeatedly for the same violation, its operators are given a grace period.

Following discussions at the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Task Force, the city has recently begun gathering code enforcement officers, police officers, fire code inspectors and representatives from the county health department to coordinate multiagency inspections at motels.

Recently, a cluster of inspectors gathered in the parking lot outside Costa Mesa’s City Hall before rolling out to inspect the Sandpiper Motel on Newport Boulevard.

There, a crew descended on about eight rooms, carefully inspecting walls for holes and peeking under mattresses with flashlights.

“The reason we all come at once,” explained Jon Neal, a city code enforcement officer, “is so we have more eyes at once for a focused attack on whatever issues we find.”

Motel assistant manager Adriana Cano took inspectors from room to room, unlocking doors.

She pointed out one room in particular — 139.

Officers knocked on the door, and gnats flew out when David Garland, 94, opened it a crack. Dust and debris lined the floor. The bed was overshadowed by what looked like a cave carved from cereal boxes, clothes and papers.

Garland emerged cautiously and explained that he was a World War II-era veteran who had lived nearby. His wife had died and he’d been living at the Sandpiper for two or three years, he said.

Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Vik Bakkila said he’d help Garland get help.

Cano said the motel had tried to move him out, but it had been difficult to make him understand.

“It just gets to the point where you don’t know exactly what to do,” she said.


No background checks

Some motel operators say they have few options and need the income that customers — even those who are less than ideal — bring.

“They say, ‘You shouldn’t accept people like this,’ but we need to live. We need to make our living,” said a manager of the Ali Baba motel on Newport Boulevard who asked to be identified only by his first name, Jason.

Hector Almaraz, manager of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, emphasized that it’s illegal to perform background checks on customers.

Motels do have some agency over keeping out troublesome customers, said Lynn Mohrfeld, the president and chief executive of the California Hotel & Lodging Assn.

Among the ways motels can keep their properties secure from undesirable visitors is to create guest-only restrictions and tighten check-in requirements, including taking a photo copy of a guest’s identification and keeping it on file, Mohrfeld said.

After that happens, Mohrfeld said “you’re going to watch your nefarious stuff go down to zero in about five seconds.”

Laurie Dickendasher, who manages the Regency Inn on Newport Boulevard, said she goes further than merely attempting to keep law enforcement at bay.

Since she started working at the motel a decade ago, she’s made improvements, including discouraging problem renters. She proudly notes that before her time, the motel had the most calls from police and fire officials than any other in the area.

As of 2011, it ranked fifth in calls. But the motel’s earlier reputation as a home for sex offenders continues to haunt it, Dickendasher said.

“That does a lot of damage, a lot of damage,” she said.

She strives for approval from the Automobile Association of America, or AAA, she said.

The Sandpiper Motel, about two miles away, used to host surfers in its two former Santa Ana Army Air Base buildings. (A third structure was later constructed at the site).

But the construction of the 55 Freeway sent travelers speeding past the motel, and the standards for clientele declined, said Ken Nyquist, who lives next to the inn.

On a recent Tuesday, Nyquist pulled a plastic bag filled with a large Pacifico beer and a half empty Smirnoff from the back of his truck.

It isn’t uncommon for him to find syringes or pipes thrown into his yard, he said.

Years ago, Costa Mesa police would swing by the motel, and the owners would throw open their doors, allowing police to browse the register of clients and check out rooms where there was suspicious activity.

“It was regulated like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.


Police presence

Costa Mesa police, of course, still make frequent visits. In one year, in fact, they were called to one motel about 500 times.

During a walk through the Motor Inn’s grounds earlier this year, Costa Mesa Police Officer Julian Trevino, who focuses on community policing of motels, said the 236-room establishment is like a densely packed neighborhood.

“It’s like its own little community,” Trevino said. “Like any community, they have disagreements.”

He handed a little girl a sticker as she shinnied out of an open window. The sticker was shiny and shaped like a police badge.

Coming Thursday: Part III will look at the historic past of the Kon Tiki Motel.