Hotels and motels in El Cajon have been put on notice: provide clean and safe lodging free from criminal activity or face the consequences.
A staff report shared with the City Council last week explained that a number of incidents at motels — from drug and gang activity to fires to roach-infested rooms — have prompted the city to step in.
The City Council unanimously approved a change to the city’s zoning code that will hold accountable its 20 lodging establishments. The “Deemed Approved Lodging Establishment Ordinance” requires hotels and motels to comply with specific performance standards.
It also gives El Cajon a way to modify or revoke the permits of properties considered problematic. The process, which could ultimately lead to closing down a motel, would include an investigation, written warning, time to remedy the violation and a public hearing at a Planning Commission meeting.
The staff report said that most of El Cajon’s motels were built at a time when roadside spots beckoning travelers were popular. Now, many motels have changed their operational models, and because they offer low, daily rates, people often use them for short- and long-term housing.
Motel rooms, which often lack kitchen facilities, are not intended for permanent residency. The city reported that some rooms in the city “are being adapted for cooking and other uses which may pose fire safety risks or other hazards.” In the past few years, there have been fires, shootings, stabbings, rapes, and a homicide at area motels.
El Cajon has 20 motels and hotels with a total of 1,120 rooms, including the 120-room four-star Courtyard by Marriott, which opened in 2018. Another hotel with 96 rooms, Hampton Inn by Hilton, is under construction at the old police site at Fletcher Parkway and Magnolia Avenue.
The city said the police department received 1,868 calls for services last year, down from a high of 2,149 in 2014.
The Rodeway Inn on El Cajon Boulevard had the most calls last year, 406, followed by the Motel 6 on Montrose Court, which had 285 calls, and the Villa Embasadora Inn on East Main Street with 209 calls.
Documented problems in the last five years at various motels include:
- In 2014, the Valley Motel was referred to code compliance after a drug-related incident resulting in violence. The property was declared substandard and tenants relocated due to severe pest issues as well as building and fire safety code violations.
- In 2015, the Ha’Penny Inn (now the Vista Pines Motel) was found to have building and fire safety violations.
- In 2015, the Villa Embasadora Inn was inspected after a fire-related fatality and found to have building and fire safety violations.
- In 2016, the Villa Serena motel was inspected after a police raid involving gang activity, and safety and habitability issues were discovered.
The city also said the Rodeway Inn has become “a source of gang-affiliated activity including drug use and sales and prostitution.” The report said that in the first four months of this year, there have been eight crime reports and 18 arrests for weapons, drugs, stabbings, and parole and probation violations at the site.
Aside from general fire inspections, El Cajon staff does not conduct regular inspections of motels or hotels. The city will check out an issue if it receives a complaint about conditions at a property. The staff report said that once a complaint has been made or issue discovered, “these establishments are often found to be in such a degraded condition that a significant amount of rehabilitation work is needed to address these issues.”
The new ordinance will give the city strategies and measures that can be taken to improve safety, security and minimize the number of “problem guests.” The program includes each motel’s operations, registration requirements, security measures, minimum property standards, maintenance, nuisance activity, the payment of Transient Occupancy Tax, and compliance with all building, fire and housing codes.
The ordinance creates what the city calls “a level playing field” by requiring all lodging sites to adhere to the performance standards. El Cajon based its ordinance on one adopted in 1999 by Oakland. The staff report said that Oakland’s ordinance had successfully withstood constitutional challenges.
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