The E-Z 8 Motel on Pacific Highway, which San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is considering acquiring to offer permanent housing for the homeless, is shown on April 20, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Mayor Kevin Faulconer wants to spend an untold amount of taxpayer money on motels to permanently house hundreds of homeless people who are sheltered at the San Diego Convention Center to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

inewsource found that six of the 10 properties the city is looking to buy, possibly on a lease-to-own basis, have a history of code enforcement complaints about bedbugs, cockroaches and mold.

Four of the motels have logged more than 100 calls to San Diego police since January 2018, including the E-Z 8 Motel on Pacific Highway with 524, according to Police Department call logs.

Why this matters

Homeless people are among the most vulnerable populations to illness and infectious disease. Mayor Kevin Faulconer has said providing them with a safe place during and after the COVID-19 crisis is a priority.

City Attorney Mara Elliott referred to the owners of one motel under consideration as “slumlords” in a 2017 announcement of criminal charges against them for dangerous housing conditions at a City Heights apartment complex they own.

Erik Caldwell, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, told inewsource on Tuesday that the city is still in the process of assessing the condition of the motels.

“There’s a tremendous amount of due diligence that’s currently underway. I’m confident that should we decide to purchase any of these properties, and that decision has not definitively been made, we’ll make sure that it’s done so in a way that the future tenants and citizens alike can be proud of,” Caldwell said.

Because this is a potential real estate deal, much of the discussions and negotiations are being conducted behind closed doors. But the city is working to secure a lease-to-own contract with some or all of the motels on the list, and more could be added, Caldwell said. Over the next two years, he said, city staff would work to secure federal funding to buy the properties as transitional housing for the homeless.

All of this, he said, the City Council would have to approve.

Faulconer has not made public how many motels the city may acquire, how much it would cost or what it would take to rehabilitate the properties so they can permanently house some of San Diego’s estimated 5,100 homeless people.

The fiscal 2021 budget Faulconer proposed last week includes sweeping cuts to offset a $250 million tax revenue shortfall caused by the economic crisis the coronavirus has created with the shutdown of hotels, restaurants and businesses.

“It is not uncommon for the city of San Diego and Housing Commission to look at hotels, whether they’re distressed hotels or not distressed hotels … for this type of a purpose,” Caldwell said. “What’s different here is that the money that it might have taken to buy one hotel six months ago, we might be able to get two today.”

This proposal comes as San Diego city officials have been under fire for another lease-to-own contract for an asbestos-ridden Ash Street high-rise that city employees moved into last December. They were eventually moved out and the building closed to address safety concerns.

Bedbugs, roaches and mold

The first step in acquiring motels to house the homeless occurred on Friday when the San Diego Housing Commission voted 6-0 with one board member absent to join with city officials to negotiate with the 10 property owners. The Housing Commission declined to comment about the decision, citing the ongoing negotiations.

Since that vote, inewsource has dug into public records about the properties, and this is what we found:

  • The Consulate Hotel on Nimitz Boulevard has logged 161 calls to San Diego police since January 2018, and people filed code enforcement complaints about pest infestations three times in the past five years. Management provided invoices to show cockroaches were removed in 2015 and bedbugs were removed in 2018, according to city records. Code enforcement staff also inspected after a complaint of bedbugs in 2016 but found nothing.
Windows of the Consulate Hotel on Nimitz Boulevard are shown on April 20, 2020. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is considering acquiring the hotel to offer permanent housing for the homeless. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Complaints of mold or infestations are inspected within five business days, said Leslie Sennett, a deputy director in the Development Services Department, which oversees code enforcement. But inspectors have to see actual evidence cited in the complaint — visible mold patterns on the walls, bedbug eggs or pest excrement in the unit — to take any action, Sennet said.

Most consumers complain to the property’s management before calling the city, she said.

Mahin Nobel, who has owned The Consulate since 2003, told inewsource on Monday the city contacted her two weeks ago, and she insists the property is not for sale. It’s her late husband’s legacy, she said.

John Nobel had a contentious history with the city, which sued him multiple times from 2011 to 2014 for leasing properties to illegal marijuana dispensaries. California legalized recreational marijuana in January 2018, but local governments have permitting rules the dispensaries must follow. To settle the suits, John Nobel paid $250,000 in civil penalties. His wife was also named, as were four other co-owners.

John and Mahin Nobel were both charged by the city attorney in 2017 with maintaining substandard living conditions at their City Heights apartment complex. Seven Congolese refugee families moved in and complained of mold, rodent and rat infestations, and other problems. Mahin Nobel pleaded guilty last year, after her husband had died, to five misdemeanor counts of health and safety code violations. She was fined $5,000 and agreed to fix the violations.

She did not comment on her family’s history with the city.

  • Over the past three years, the E-Z 8 Motel on Pacific Highway has received four code enforcement complaints, records show. This past January, someone reported a cockroach infestation. Code enforcement inspected but found nothing.

10 motels the city could acquire

Vantaggio Suites, 819 University Ave., Hillcrest
Ramada Inn, 828-830 6th Ave., Downtown
Days Inn, 5343 Adobe Falls Road, Grantville
Quality Inn, 3878 Dalbergia Court, Southcrest
E-Z 8 Motel, 4747 Pacific Highway, Old Town
Wyndham Garden, 3737 Midway Drive, Midway District
Days Inn & Suites, 3350 Rosecrans St., Midway District
No name provided, 3330 Gaines St., Mission Valley
Rodeway Inn, 5399 Adobe Falls Road, Grantville
The Consulate Hotel, 2901 Nimitz Blvd., Point Loma

In May 2019, code enforcement found bedbugs during an inspection, and management later provided an invoice to show the problem had been taken care of. Complaints about mold in January 2019, bedbugs in July 2018 and mold in December 2016 were closed without violations. Code enforcement inspected each time but didn’t find a violation, records show.

The motel was leased in June 2019 by Laurie Anne Victoria and the Conrad Prebys Trust. Efforts to reach Victoria were unsuccessful. Prebys, a wealthy San Diego philanthropist who built a real estate empire, died in July 2016. There’s been a lengthy court fight over control of his estate.

  • San Diego police responded to 79 calls for help at the Rodeway Inn on Adobe Falls Road in the past two years. The motel also received a code enforcement complaint in October about bedbugs after a guest had a “severe skin reaction.”

“The bites were so severe and spread throughout my body, that I had to get medical attention,” the complaint said.

Code enforcement inspected but didn’t find any bedbugs, records show. The case was closed with no violation.

Sennett said the bedbugs would have to be visible at the motel.

“So it wouldn’t be that someone could show us a picture … or even bites. We’d have to be able to go into the property, and we’d have to see that they are there and present, or evidence of them like droppings or spots,” she said.

Hareshkumar Patel has owned the motel since 2017. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

  • The Days Inn, which is next to the Roadway Inn on Adobe Falls Road, has received four code enforcement complaints in five years. Code enforcement found bedbugs during an inspection in 2015 and closed the case after management provided an invoice.

City staff also inspected a complaint about bedbugs and mold in 2017 and two complaints about bedbugs last year. The cases were closed after no problem was found, records show. In addition, police have responded to 233 calls at the property since January 2018.

Mitesh “Mike” Kalthia owns the motel. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

The Days Inn & Suites on Adobe Falls Road, which San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is considering acquiring to offer permanent housing for the homeless,is shown on April 20, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)
  • The city received a call about bedbugs at the Wyndham Garden motel on Midway Drive in November 2018, and management treated the room, records show. Code enforcement inspected and didn’t find anything, so the case was closed with no violation. Kishor Mungra owns the motel. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
  • Since January 2018, police have responded to 102 calls to the Days Inn & Suites on Rosecrans Street. The motel has also received three code enforcement complaints about mold on the walls and ceilings over the past 18 months. Code enforcement closed all three complaints, despite two never being inspected.

One inspector realized the room was occupied, and then asked management if it was still a problem, said Scott Robinson, a city spokesman. When management said there were no other complaints of mold, the case was closed with no violation.

The same thing happened after someone complained about an overflowing toilet, clogged sink and 4 inches of standing water in the bathtub in a room at the motel. Because the room was occupied when the inspector arrived, it wasn’t inspected. The inspector didn’t enter the room, and instead asked management if plumbing was still an issue.

David Faust has owned the motel since November 2018. Attempts to reach Faust were unsuccessful.

City spokesman Robinson said this has been a “learning experience” and that code enforcement has since been told to enter all units, regardless of whether they are occupied, during an inspection.

Sennett with the Development Services Department said: “Everything from the Grand Del Mar to the E-Z 8 to somebody’s Airbnb in their backyard … anywhere where people are staying, there’s going to be the possibility of some of these issues.”

The city receives 4,500 to 5,000 code enforcement complaints annually. About 1,500 complaints related to infestations or mold have been reported in the past five years. Sennett said many of them can’t be proven. People have sensitivities, and someone who comes home with a rash or a cough might look to attribute it to a room they rented, she said.

“A lot of times if you’re in an unfamiliar location, especially like a motel or something, you might assume that that’s where that happened,” Sennett said. All complaints are taken seriously, she added, and the city works to get actual violations corrected quickly.

inewsource intern Natallie Rocha contributed to this report.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...