El Cajon backs off from threatening to fine hotel owners in homelessness fight with county

The largest city in East County will no longer fine hotels with large numbers of homeless people, although authorities are seeking to overhaul rules governing who can rent rooms.

Of eight El Cajon hotels that accept vouchers, seven had been threatened with fines if they did not reduce their homeless population, as part of a larger fight with the county.

“As a sign of good faith, the City has advised motel owners that the warning notices sent earlier are rescinded until further policy discussions can take place with City Council,” according to a press release sent.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

The news follows a unanimous vote on Tuesday by the El Cajon Planning Commission, which approved a short resolution saying the scope of the voucher program was leading to “illegal drug use and disruption 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.

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.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reviewed warnings sent to four people who are on or near Main Street.

City officials justified the initial threat by citing a series of local rules, though many are vague when it comes to vouchers.

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 interactive zoning map. 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.)

These 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 face fines starting at $100 a day if they failed to comply by September 16, City Manager Graham Mitchell later said no fines would be issued. before he could sit down with landlords and people currently renting rooms could stay. at this time, as long as hotels do not accept additional vouchers.

“The city and motel operators have agreed to continue the dialogue and seek solutions,” Friday’s news release said, and officials again asked county leaders to improve how they screen people. receiving vouchers.

Writer Gary Warth contributed to this report.

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