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Council also calls for investigation into price-gouging by motels

By Jessyka Heredia

March 21, 2022 (El Cajon) At a special session meeting Tuesday, El Cajon City Council members voiced outrage over recent crimes happening in hotels involving recipients of the county’s hotel voucher program. These vouchers are intended to help people vulnerable from homelessness find shelter at local hotels. 

Recently it was discovered that two men allegedly molested a 16 year old female victim at a Motel 6 located on Montrose Court in El Cajon and videotaped it. Both men are registered sex offenders and wore ankle monitoring devices. El Cajon Police Department has indicated it believes at least two other underage girls were sexually assaulted by the men.

City Manager Graham Mitchell set the tone for the meeting, speaking out passionately about how to protect the community and yet be firm in protecting the city. In the Agenda Report, Mitchell gave an extensive background explaining El Cajon’s dedication to being “a leader in the region when it comes to providing homeless solutions.” Those efforts have included funding a homeless shelter in El Cajon, supporting construction of tiny homes for homeless mothers and children, creating a program to reunite homeless individuals with families, and more.

The City Manager’s report noted that “last fall, the city noticed an uptick in crime, calls for service, and criminal behavior at and around several motels in the City..” Incidents  cited included a teen shot in the head at the El Cajon Inn and Suites and an arrest “over this past weekend… of a sex offender staying at a local motel with the use of a County voucher administered by EQUUS.”

The voucher program has been a bone of contention between the City of El Cajon and the County of San Diego for months. The City previously raised concerns over the County’s lack of vetting and placement of people with criminal records, some of whom committed crimes ranging from drug use to setting fires. The County refused to make changes to the program, noting that 30% of participants have wound up in permanent housing, but acknowledging that 20% have been ousted from the program for violating rules.

El Cajon then tried cracking down on motels with a higher percentage of homeless occupancy that city regulations allowed, only to be slapped with a warning from the State Attorney General warning that this violated state fair housing law.

Six options were presented to the Council for consideration. Council was informed that “several of the options can be explored simultaneously.” A closed session was scheduled to immediately follow the public meeting, so that Councilmembers and the City Attorney could go over any legalities.

The first option would be to require motels to “provide a report to the Police Department within two hours of housing a registered sex offender (currently registrants have up to ten days to report) and prohibit the use of a motel within 2,000 feet of a school and/or licensed day care facility.”

The second option would be a  90-day moratorium on the use of motel vouchers in El Cajon , or possibly a moratorium on El Cajon motels being used for housing except those already in an agreement with the city. 

Another option would be to bring Motel 6 before the Planning Commission for a hearing after the investigation is completed, if warranted, “to consider revocation of their deemed approved status or, if applicable, their operating permit.”

Also provided were conditions the Council could set, such as requiring establishments to inform the City of participation in housing programs and a criminal record search prior to housing an individual.

The Council could also opt for an investigation into price gouging by the motels in the program. City Manager Mitchell gave the example that he tried to book a room that day at that very Motel 6 for “$79 last minute” but that motels in the program are being reimbursed for up to $140 to house homeless people through the County’s voucher program, which is funded by taxpayers.

A heart-wrenching public comment was given Faith Saintclair, a resident of that same Motel 6 for the last two months. She spoke of conditions behind the motel with growing encampments, fear for herself and her three children, adding that she “does not qualify for any hotel vouchers.” Saintclair went on to say, “There needs to be a very stern assessment of the people” receiving motel vouchers. She told the Council that she is “begging for some kind of solution.”

Councilmember Michell Metschel sympathized with the speaker, stating, I’m sorry that these programs are not giving what you need… I’m beyond mad.” While Councilmember Phil Ortiz spoke of how he himself was once homeless and told the speaker, “You have allies here.” 

Mayor Bill Wells asked Saintclair if she ever felt unsafe at the motel. Saintclair’s voice cracked as she replied, “All the time”. The faces in the room were somber. 

Before heading into closed session, Council deliberated on the options and which ones to consider. Councilmember Steve Goble compared the situation to the health inspector power. “If the County can close a restaurant without notice for cockroaches, surely we should be able to hold the motel owner accountable quickly,” he said.

Councilmember Ortiz asked, “Do we know if this money is County or state administered?” The City Manager confirmed it was federal money received by the county. Ortiz continued by saying he “supports all the reforms presented.” 

Wells finished by stating that El Cajon receives 45% of the burden of homelessness for the County but that they only have 3% of the population countywide. Wells concuded, “This should be a wake-up call that this thing is out of control, this is a malignant program.”

After the Council returned from closed session, City Attorney Morgan Foley stated that Council had given staff direction to “do research into the matters that were discussed.” City Manager Mitchell followed with bringing forward a planning commission item to implement some of the things that Council member Goble mentioned and bringing Motel 6 in for a public hearing by the next possible Planning Commission meeting.” Staff will be researching all of the options presented to the Council and will bring them back one at a time, including the 90-day moratorium. 

ECM reached out to Supervisor Joel Anderson’s office, but his staff declined to leave a statement at this time and directed us to reach out to County staff. We also reached out to Mayor Wells, but have not yet received a reply.


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