Each year, the Fresno County Department of Social Services spends over a million dollars to house families in motels. Motel vouchers, good for two weeks at a time, are like a golden ticket for families with nowhere else to go.

For many residents on the verge of homelessness, motels are often their last chance at housing. Now Fresno city leaders are hoping to improve their living conditions after unanimously passing an ordinance last May that will require inspections of motels.

The ordinance focuses on the oldest and most run-down properties, according to Fresno Councilman Miguel Arias, whose district includes a large section of motels that he’s described as neglected. He said that for years the city has essentially allowed criminals to roam free in such areas.

“This is something that nobody wants to take on,” Arias said. “It’s not easily resolved.”

Some motel owners fear the city’s ordinance will create more problems than it solves. Owners told The Bee that they worry that they won’t be able to afford to make significant improvements and comply with the new rules. They also fear some of the poorest residents who depend on motels essentially would be priced into homelessness.

In a city that has grown increasingly unequal over the years, residents living in extreme poverty continue to find it harder to keep up with rent and maintain stable housing, according to a report published last year by the city.

While rents have climbed across the city, wages have not, according to the report, which examines the displacement of low-income residents as the city tries to revitalize. About half of Fresno’s population rents homes, and half of those renters spend a significant portion of their income on rent, the report says.

The burden hits renters differently, and the housing problem has attracted the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who this month proposed spending $750 million to fund rent subsidies and create affordable housing.

Cost of being poor

More than 1,700 households in Fresno County are served by hotel vouchers intended to house the homeless, according to Laura Moreno, program manager with social services in Fresno County. The number does not include residents who find their own way into motels.

Moreno said families live in motels because they can’t pay rent for apartments or they face eviction. Others have bad credit or struggle to navigate the rental process.

Motel rates can vary. Moreno said households with up to four members can pay $85 a night with assistance from the CalWorks Homeless Assistance program, Moreno said. Families with eight or more members pay up to $145 a night.

“They are probably paying more (at motels) than they would on rent,” Moreno said. “I don’t think folks realize what that takes, but a lot of times it costs you more to be poor.”

The Bee spoke with three longtime motel residents who declined to be named in this article out of fear of jeopardizing their already difficult housing situation. All three said they feel trapped living in motels because of their lack of jobs and steady income. Renting an apartment is too expensive, and other times there are long waits to get approved for housing, they said.

More than 1,700 households in Fresno County are served by hotel vouchers intended to house the homeless.

Fresno has the highest percentage of unsheltered people in the country. Yet, as the homelessness population rises, there is a shortage of affordable housing, a problem recognized by residents and city leaders.

“I don’t know that we are in a state that everybody is going to have their own house. I think that we’re past that,” Moreno said. “In the 50s, it was ‘a house for everybody’ … That’s not the case anymore.”

In a housing study published last year, Fresno State sociologist Janine Nkosi and a team of researchers found evictions are higher in areas with higher rent burden. Eviction rates are also higher in non-white neighborhoods in Fresno. The places in the city facing higher rates of eviction and rent burden are also some of the historically disadvantaged neighborhoods, where residents often owed just one month’s rent before facing eviction.

“If people can’t afford rent, what’s the fallout of that?” Nkosi said. “These are the families that are part of that story for who is lining up on motel drive.”

City crafts a plan

Arias, whose district is largely made up of economically-burdened neighborhoods, said the motel ordinance is a start to a “structural fix” to improve living conditions.

Under the ordinance, inspections of motels must include building, fire and electrical standards; motels were previously exempt from such inspections.

Other rules include prohibiting hourly room rentals and proof of ID for every person entering a room. Arias said those measures are aimed at combating drug and sex trafficking, a persistent problem in areas like Parkway Drive, west of Highway 99.

Last year, Mayor Lee Brand also announced the Motel Owners Association, a mechanism aimed at bringing together motel owners to combat crime. The focus was primarily around Parkway Drive.

In February, the council is expected to discuss a plan to make it easier to repurpose motels into long-term housing if owners fail to correct violations or if they want to sell their property. That part of the ordinance would come with a measure to relocate residents while motels are inspected.

Addressing motels is for the most part uncharted territory. But Arias said he views the ordinance as a way to keep motel owners accountable for substandard conditions — especially those owners who don’t live in the city.

“It’s going to be a big body of work, but I believe that we are on the right track,” Arias said.

Still, some owners say fixing violations could be expensive, especially since they say business has been stagnant in recent years. Those costs likely would be passed on to motel customers, who may not be able to afford the additional expense, the owners said.

“This is basically their home,” said Pratike Bhakta, who owns a Motel 6 property on Parkway Drive with his family. “We don’t want to do it, but that’s what we’re going to be forced to do in order to basically comply with this new ordinance.”

Brian Whelan, who represents the Greater Roeding Park Business Association, said the city could be overreaching by attempting to regulate motels. He said the actions of some motel owners aren’t reflective of all owners, and the city’s move would make “a small problem a much bigger problem.”

Outside factors hurt motel row

Bhakta, who is president of the Roeding Park Association, says his hotel does not rent long term and he has conducted his business as best as he can, but the market in the area has been harmed by outside factors for years, and his fellow business owners are paying the price.

He said there has been a lack of city attention and resources in the area, as well as a migration of people from motel areas to the south that have been cut out by High Speed Rail construction.

“We are just asking for more help because we can’t police outside of our property,” Bhakta said.

The city’s move to regulate motels isn’t quite what owners like Bhakta see as a solution to their problems. In their view, more police and city resources are needed in areas around motels. Officers in the nearby southwest police district have helped as much as they can, Bhakta said. He said there is a stronger police presence this week after an officer was attacked by an alleged sex worker last week on Parkway Drive.

Bhakta said motel owners are worried they and low income residents who rent at some of the motels may face a financial burden if major improvements are needed to comply with the ordinance, while the other issues will persist.

“We still have to make sure we are able to pay all of our bills,” Bhakta said. “Otherwise we have nowhere to go. We are on the streets, then.”

Layla Forstedt, CEO of the Fresno-Clovis Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she supports the owners coming together to explore solutions.

She acknowledged that Parkway Drive doesn’t have the same attraction it once did. In newer parts of the city, motels have seen strong business, she said.

Last year, the city earned about $12 million in revenue from hotel taxes, Forstedt added.

Yet owners in older parts of the city say they want more support, rather than being blamed for their surroundings. It’s one thing the owners and the city seem to agree on.

“People are going to go where there is good living conditions,” Arias said.

Cresencio Rodriquez-Delgado is a reporter with the Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a journalist at The Fresno Bee and reports for The California Divide. He grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and attended Fresno City College and Fresno State. He has a bachelor's...