OC Register Editors Get It Wrong!
This morning the editors at the Orange County Register published an opinion on their pages, which can be found online HERE, that postulates that "after decades of attempting to root out several problematic motels through coercion and police action" Costa Mesa stumbled upon a more "novel solution: the free market."
COSTA MESA MOTOR INN
In their piece they refer specifically to the recent decision by the operators of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, the largest of the so-called problem motels and the one which racked up the greatest number of calls for public safety services in recent years, to demolish their 236-room facility and build a new "luxury" apartment complex with 224 units - 20 of which would be aimed at the "moderate income" demographic. In Costa Mesa, that would be someone earning north of $100,000.
LOSS OF LOW INCOME HOUSING
One of the impacts of this decision is that it removes from the city inventory a significant number of housing units currently being utilized by very low or low income families and individuals. Yes, city officials will correctly observe that those rooms were NOT counted as part of their government-recognized numbers, but the fact is that facility has housed many such individuals and families.
YES, THE "PROBLEM MOTELS" HAVE DETERIORATED
Nobody will argue that the Costa Mesa Motor Inn - a place where families headed for a beach vacation would book a room or two for a week or two back in the 1970s when it first opened - and many of it's contemporaries in the motel business in Costa Mesa, currently provide accommodations acceptable to most of us. They have deteriorated into venues for folks temporarily - and sometimes not so temporarily - down on their luck. They are the last bastion for many before becoming homeless or the first step up on their way back from homelessness. Mayor Steve Mensinger has regaled us many times with his personal story of picking up Estancia High School students - young men on his beloved Eagle football team - who lived at that motel because it was the only place their families could afford.
YES, SOME ARE CRIME-RIDDEN
Yes, some of those places have become havens for crime - drugs, prostitution, etc. - which makes the plight of those forced to seek shelter there even more traumatic. Yes, they need to be cleaned up. Yes, the photos of some of the units presented in open council sessions shook us to the bone.
BULLYING WAS THE MOTIVATION
But, please do not be wooed by the Register Editorial writers into going along with the premise that these property owners just magically recognized the free market as a solution. They did not! They have been bludgeoned into that decision by our elected leaders and their policies.
TARGETED GOVERNMENTAL TERRORISM
The owners of those properties have been the targets of a specific campaign of what amounts to governmental terrorism, spearheaded by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer. Ever since he took a seat on the City Council he has made it very clear, in unequivocal terms from the dais, that his goal was to "help" the owners take a more realistic view of the value of their properties. He meant they thought they were worth more than his developer-buddies wanted to spend to turn them into high density apartment complexes.
USING HIS POWER
Toward that goal - and he IS a goal-oriented guy - he unleashed the full fury of his position. He created a brand new Code Enforcement entity, apart from the established Code Enforcement group, and had them charged with specifically making those "problem motels" the focus of their activities. Police, Fire and Code Enforcement organizations began to pay special attention to those handful of businesses. Fines were levied and they were publicly called-out for their perceived transgressions. And yet that was not enough.
TIGHTENING THE SCREWS
So, with the warped "wisdom" so common with bullies, in January, 2014 he and the council majority crafted a special treat for those businesses - Title 14, Chapter VI of the Costa Mesa Municipal Code, HERE, the Excessive Use Of Resources Ordinance. Those "problem motels" were assigned a specific number of calls for service they were permitted to make. If those numbers were exceeded, the violating business would be subject to very significant fines. One could almost feel the screws being tightened.
This forced some of those operators to make some very difficult decisions. If there was an emergency - say a screaming woman in one of their units - and they had already "used up" their quota of calls, their choice was to either call the police or not, and let the chips - and the screaming woman - fall where they may. And, of course, they kept their fingers crossed that nobody else would call, because it didn't make any difference WHO called - the penalties were the same.
THE LAST STRAW
Following months of intense focus by public safety organizations the Costa Mesa Motor Inn was the recipient of a special "inducement" a little over a year ago when the city decided to revoke it's Conditional Use Permit for long term occupancy rooms. Straw, meet camel's back.
In the case of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, they accomplished a dramatic drop in calls for service by creating a virtual - and literal - prison at their establishment. It is on "lockdown" 24/7/365. Based on the testimony at the recent Planning Commission hearing where their request was heard, they chose not to become operators of a prison, so they're asking for code changes so they can scrape their property and build apartments - market rate apartments, except for those few designated for moderate income folks. But don't for a second think that doing this was a voluntary decision. One can take only so many punches to the gut in the form of fines before you begin to see the light - while you can still see anything.
RELOCATION PACKAGE TO BE OFFERED
And, to their credit, they have planned to offer a "relocation package" to current residents who continue to pay their bill and keep their room in good condition which will include 3-months rent reimbursement plus $1,500 if they stay until given eviction notices - likely to be next June for an August evacuation date. This could amount to $4,500 - $5,500 each - perhaps enough to secure housing elsewhere, but not likely in Costa Mesa. In an attempt to abrogate that issue, their consultant, former Costa Mesa Director of Development Services, Don Lamm, told the Planning Commission that only 17% of the current residents of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn are from Costa Mesa.
I'm astonished that the editors of the most widely-read newspaper in our county would so openly condone the governmental bullying tactics that got the Costa Mesa Motor Inn to this point. Their last sentence is "Let the market work." I don't think they actually envisioned the market "working" with brass knuckles, but that's the reality of this situation.
Whether you agree with this outcome or not, next Thursday, October 22, 2015, from 5-6:30 p.m., activists from the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition - distraught at the loss of those affordable units and with no official relief in sight - will demonstrate in front of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn to draw more public attention to this issue. And, I suspect, they will present themselves to the City Council when this issue is heard before that body.
A final question for you to consider. Who will be next in the cross-hairs for your elected leaders? What kind of business will next be found to be undesirable and be targeted for extinction in Costa Mesa? We already know industrial business owners on the Westside of town are feeling pressure. We know that Roger MacGregor - one of the most respected small boat builders in the country and an institution on the Westside for decades - saw the handwriting on the wall, retired in 2013 and his daughter decamped much of the business to Florida. His iconic former headquarters remains a sobering reminder of what an industrial powerhouse the Costa Mesa Westside once was.