California Department of Justice Threatens El Cajon Over Plan to Amend Homeless Hotels, City Backs Down

East County’s largest city will no longer fine hotels with large numbers of homeless people, though officials plan to revise rules governing who can rent rooms with county-issued vouchers .

The move comes as the California Department of Justice threatens to sue the city.

Of eight El Cajon hotels accepting vouchers, seven were told earlier this month they risked fines if they failed to reduce their homeless population, as part of a wider fight with the county.

Officials reversed on Friday, after City Manager Graham Mitchell sat down with the owners.

“As a sign of good faith, the City has advised the motel owners that the warning notices sent earlier are rescinded until further policy discussions can take place with City Council,” according to a press release sent. Friday by a spokesperson.

The statement does not mention that California officials recently told the city that the proposed fines “violate the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act,” according to El Cajon City Council’s next agenda. . As a result, the city faces “significant litigation exposure.”

Council members plan to meet in camera next Tuesday to discuss the situation.

Mitchell declined to comment Friday night. A message left with the state Justice Department was not immediately returned.

“Strengthen the Order”

The city’s current rules on what hotels can and can’t do are vague when it comes to vouchers.

Hotel vouchers have been a key part of the region’s response to the homelessness crisis, especially during the pandemic. While more than 1,300 people were recently left homeless in El Cajon, the vast majority were in some form of shelter, according to the latest tally from the regional homelessness task force.

But city officials say police were repeatedly called to hotels using large numbers of vouchers, putting a strain on resources.

Earlier this week, the El Cajon Planning Commission unanimously passed a short resolution stating that the scope of the voucher program leads to “illegal drug use and disturbance of the peace.”

Commissioners have ordered staff members to quickly rewrite the city’s zoning code, and a proposed amendment is expected to be ready for consideration at the commission’s Oct. 4 meeting.

The update will clarify how hotel space can be used and “strengthen the ordinance to be clearer,” Noah Alvey, the city’s deputy director of community development, told the commissioners.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reviewed warnings sent to four hotels on or near Main Street, which showed city officials justifying the fines by citing a series of local rules.

The warnings say hotel owners are violating municipal code “17.145.150,” which defines what is allowed in commercial areas.

Hotels and motels only need a conditional use permit, depending on the code.

Yet city leaders say housing large numbers of homeless people has effectively turned these facilities into “emergency shelters.”

The code bars the shelters of the city center. Additionally, the city’s downtown-only plan, known as Specific Plan 182, prohibits “social and charitable services.”

A downtown hotel that received a warning, the Travelodge at 425 West Main St., was ordered to “cease unauthorized operation of the emergency shelter.” The disclaimer didn’t say it could just reduce the number of vouchers it accepts.

At least three other hotels are in areas that would allow shelters if landlords had additional permits, according to the city’s online zoning map. Spokesman David Richards said none had the required clearances.

Their three warnings also cite a section of the municipal code governing “incidental uses” of a business.

An incidental use is the secondary activity of a business, such as a snack stand in a theater.

“Generally, an accessory use will not exceed 15% of the gross floor area,” the code states. As a result, the city ordered hotels to reduce their number of vouchers to 15%. (Shelters also face a host of additional rules.)

The three hotels outside of downtown are the Relax Inn & Suites at 1220 West Main St., the Rancho San Diego Inn at 1355 East Main St., and America’s Best Value Inn at 1274 Oakdale Ave.

While notices said hotels would be subject to fines starting at $100 a day if they failed to comply by September 16, Mitchell later said no penalties would be issued until he unable to sit down with the landlords and that people currently renting rooms could stay for the time. being, as long as the hotels did not accept additional vouchers.

‘The city and motel operators have agreed to continue the dialogue and seek solutions,’ said Friday’s news release, and local leaders again called on the county to improve how they screen people. receiving vouchers.

Writer Gary Warth contributed to this report.

Elna M. Lemons