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Anaheim Rethinks Motel Stay Ordinance

New council majority is likely to rescind a 30-day limit that makes life difficult for the poor who often live full-time in the rooms.

March 24, 2003|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

A new City Council majority in Anaheim is expected to rescind an ordinance that prohibits stays of more than 30 days at some motels -- a law critics contend removes the housing of last resort for the poor. The policy, originally designed to stem drug use and prostitution that was reported at some residential motels, has hurt the working poor, several council members agreed.

"They're doing the right thing," said Los Angeles attorney Frank Weiser, who has filed federal lawsuits against Anaheim, Buena Park, Fullerton and other cities with similar practices.

California cities began adopting the ordinances several years ago believing they would help rid cheap motels of prostitution and drugs. Some adopted blanket policies; others, like Anaheim, targeted specific motels.

Although the trend has slowed, Weiser hopes Anaheim's decision signals a clear reversal and that other cities will begin removing length-of-stay laws from the books. Critics say the conditions placed on residential motels discriminate against the disabled, the working poor or those with bad credit. Weekly rents of $150 to $200 are a deal for people who can't scrape together a security deposit, last month's rent and utility payments.

Councilman Tom Tait has long opposed limiting how long guests can stay at a motel but was outvoted. With three new council members, Tait may prevail when the council reconsiders the issue Tuesday.

"[The conditions] don't accomplish anything, other than place an unjust burden on the poor," Tait said. "That's just wrong."

The problems the law sought to correct, he said, can be resolved through code enforcement without placing restrictions on tenants. Motel owners said tenants who bring crime to their establishments are not those who use the motels as a permanent home, but customers who rent for one or two nights.

"I think it was an error when the city made the condition in the past," said Mayor Curt Pringle.

"I don't believe this one issue has anything to do with health and safety laws. ... I think there's just a greater interest to address this issue in the context of compassion."

Life at the Covered Wagon Motel in west Anaheim is not ideal, but for 15-year-old Viola Doty and her family, it is home -- the best they can afford. But every month for the past couple years, they have had to pack up and move out because of the restrictions.

Doty and her family live on a fixed income because her father has emphysema and cannot work. They say they like the Covered Wagon, with its friendly atmosphere.

"Over here, it's families," she said. "You know everybody."

But after 30 days, her family loads up its few possessions and moves down the street to another motel, one she said is "all druggies and drama." Often, they don't bother to unpack items from their car.

And with her father tethered to an oxygen tank, she said, the move can be burdensome. "He gets really weak," she said. "Sometimes it's to the point we have to carry him."

At the Covered Wagon, Doty and other regulars have formed a small -- if transient -- community. She calls Bobbi Mitchell, a woman who lives a few doors down, "grandma." Some evenings Mitchell sings with Art, a blind man who plays a harmonica.

"I feel like I've known them forever," said Mitchell.

Mitchell arrived at the Covered Wagon two weeks ago from San Diego. She uses a monthly $980 disability check for rent, barely enough to get by.

As soon as she arrived, other families told her about the city's rule. "So far, I've just been praying about it, because I have no clue what I would do if I had to move," Mitchell said.

Covered Wagon owners Greg and Jim Parkin have a federal lawsuit pending against the city, though it will likely be settled if Anaheim lifts the limit.

"I couldn't be happier," Jim Parkin said. "I think the ordinance will help a lot of working poor in Anaheim. It will help them keep a permanent address. It will help them keep their children in the same school."

Linda Dunlap, director of the nonprofit group Project Dignity, which assists families living in Orange County residential motels, agreed.

"Anaheim is unique -- or they're darn close to it," Dunlap said. "They're leaning toward accepting these people as human beings and giving them some kind of a chance."

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