Commentary: Motor Inn is trying to do the right thing

The Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition has been following the Daily Pilot's coverage of our city's motels with great interest. As mentioned in the articles, some motels have served for years as the only affordable long-term housing for many very low-income families in Costa Mesa.

For us, that is a real plus. However, we would never advocate sustaining dangerous, unhealthy and unsafe lodging for these already vulnerable families. We felt we needed to learn more about the charges.

Since the Costa Mesa Motor Inn seemed prominent in the coverage, and since it houses the largest number of families, we toured the facility and met with the manager. From the Pilot's articles, which stated the Motor Lodge has been cited for various violations and fined more than $40,000, we were fully expecting to find something akin to a slum.

However, we were pleasantly surprised at how well-kept the buildings and grounds were. The site has lovely landscaping with green lawns and lush plants, a large play area with tot-lot equipment and picnic tables.

The motel has a well-maintained swimming pool (where, incidentally, a gentleman was relaxing while reading the paper — a tourist maybe?). The entrance/lobby has a tiled marble fountain. Plans call for repainting the whole motel and repaving the parking lots.

Our group was able to go into one of the newly refurbished rooms. We were impressed with the quality of materials being used and the general desire to provide clean and safe housing.

The manager answered questions and gave us a picture of who his tenants are. He explained that the motel has not paid any fines yet. The management immediately responded to the cited violations, and he estimated that ultimately, the motel may have to pay only about $1,800 in fines.

The most serious charge seemed to be the number of smoke detectors that were not working. He pointed out that most of them only needed to have the batteries replaced. The tenants remove them so the alarms don't go off while they are cooking.

The motel management replaced more than 100 screens, which had some tears, and made minor plumbing repairs, and generally were able to fix most of the more serious violations within 10 days.

We asked him about the large number of police calls reported, and he said the majority of them are for domestic violence. He said many of these families are under a great deal of stress and take their frustrations out on each other.

Many of the police calls are triggered by couples yelling and screaming at each other and not by physical violence. He knows some calls are pranks — kids dialing 911 on the public phones outside the buildings. He is trying to get the phones removed.

(Maybe we could get a record of how many calls were for drugs, alcohol and prostitution so we don't sound too Pollyanna-ish.)

The manager impressed us with his desire to make his motel a model for providing needed housing for families that can't afford the up-front costs of renting an apartment. He is determined to upgrade all the roomsand make them cheerful and bright. The owners have approved expanded cable service so kids can watch Nickelodeon and teens can watch MTV.

The manager has brought in services such as tutoring by UC Irvine students, a mobile health clinic, parties for the kids, clothing distribution, and job search help, and has tried to print fliers describing services and reminding parents that their children need to be inside by 10 p.m. He has been told that these activities are not allowed at a motel, and so they have been discontinued.

Besides families, senior citizens and people who have recently been discharged from Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach and have no place to go have also found long-term shelter at the motel. The Illumination Foundation provides services for them, and Hoag pays their rent.

The Costa Mesa Motor Inn has a varied community, with undoubtedly some bad apples. It seems to be trying very hard to provide a badly needed type of housing, easing homelessness and giving people a chance to get on their feet. The management wants to cooperate with the city to do what is necessary to keep Costa Mesa from blight and is determined not to be classified as a "public nuisance."

Recently, the planned affordable housing development for families at Fair Drive and Harbor Boulevard was put on hold by the state. That project was to provide a large part of the affordable housing needed in Costa Mesa.

As Costa Mesa residents and advocates for affordable housing for very low-income families, we think the Costa Mesa Motor Inn deserves a chance to improve and prove itself a good neighbor. It certainly shouldn't be targeted or harassed.

JEAN FORBATH is a member of the Costa Mesa Housing Coalition and a former executive director of Share Our Selves.

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