Commentary: City enforcement at motels is working

The recent Costa Mesa Motor Inn’s hearing before the Planning Commission regarding long-term stays vindicates the mayor’s common-sense approach to our motel dilemma.

An unsettling, two-hour presentation amply demonstrated that motels originally designed for overnight guests are not suited for other purposes. Evidence of roach infestation, hoarding, fire hazards and pervasive unsanitary and unsafe conditions proves that the Motor Inn is unsuitable for long-term tenants. The hearing also showed that enforcement works. Motel owners will behave when faced with the threat of fines and enforcement.

In March 2013, various agencies inspected 14 rooms of the Motor Inn. Five were immediately closed because of roach infestation. Having provided 4½ months’ notice, the city inspected an additional 209 rooms in August and discovered 490 more violations, resulting in unprecedented fines of more than $40,000, later reduced to about half after many problems were fixed.

The new council majority that championed this enforcement approach served notice that Costa Mesa would no longer tolerate motel owners risking tenants’ health and burdening the city financially with excessive service calls.


Yet, this effective and historically proven “broken window” approach to enforcement was met with fierce opposition by affordable-housing advocates and our city’s committed left. Such an approach would create refugee families, they predicted. They further argued that motel crime would actually increase because of the fear of a fine for calling the police when needed.

There are no reports of displaced refugee families, and motel crime hasn’t increased. Instead, service calls have plummeted. Testimony from the Motor Inn’s representative explains why. Against the threat of fines for excessive service calls, the Motor Inn chose to install a security system that tracked those on the premises. Overall, motel nuisance calls have dropped 51%, and calls to police have dropped 15% from last year.

If this sounds familiar, it is. In 1995, a motel task force was formed to address code violations and crime. In 1999, the Planning Commission voted 4 to 1 to increase long-term occupancies for the Motor Inn, despite a Police Department recommendation against “additional long-term tenants until conditions improve drastically.”

The mayor has said that such motels serve as magnets to those outside of our community. Rather than serving Costa Mesa’s neediest, these motels serve the counties’ transitory residents. Testimony from the Motor Inn’s representative that 70% of the Inn’s residents are not from Costa Mesa proves the mayor’s point.


These improvements are a victory for common sense. Rewarding bad behavior leads to more bad behavior. Fearing no consequences, motel owners chose to save money at the expense of their tenants.

This coupled with the naive policy of promoting such rooms for purposes they are ill-suited for led to dangerous and unsanitary conditions, which after 20 years are only now being addressed with forward-thinking leadership that is making Costa Mesa a better and safer place to live.

Attorney TIM SESLER is a Costa Mesa planning commissioner and a member of the Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force.