Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Disorder at Budget Motels

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular motel-disorder problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community’s problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

General Principles for an Effective Strategy

  1. Enlisting community support to address the problem. Changing the way motels do business requires the support of local elected officials; government agencies that can regulate overnight lodging establishments; business associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce and convention and visitors bureaus; and, to some extent, the motels themselves. These various parties should be provided with detailed information about the nature and extent of motel problems before recommending any changes.†; Well-funded regional and national motel chains may try to influence local politicians before they have all the facts, and small-business owners—even ones who manage enterprises that border on the criminal—can be a powerful local constituency for elected officials. Neighboring businesses, residents, and users of the areas near problem motels can help make the case for change.

    † Taking elected officials and local business leaders on tours of problem motels can be an effective way of alerting them to specific issues.

  2. Obtaining cooperation from motel owners and managers. Voluntary compliance with good motel management practices is possible to obtain from a segment of motels, and there are several natural incentives for managers to reduce problems at their properties. Legitimate motel owners have a financial interest in reducing crime and disorder problems—especially those that involve a potential loss of revenue, such as guests who damage rooms or refuse to pay.†; Safe, well-run, attractive motels can charge higher rates and maintain or increase annual revenue. Some managers would genuinely like to reduce the number of problem guests and visitors at their motels, but lack the necessary financial resources or knowledge about effective crime prevention measures at motels. (To download a copy of a management practices checklist you can provide to motel managers, see www.chulavistapd.org/motels.) Independent motels, in particular, may not have the resources to make significant environmental changes, but they can make a number of management changes at little cost. National chains have more resources at their disposal and are highly capable of running safe motels, if they choose to do so. You can prioritize problem motels with uncooperative managers or owners by CSF/room ratios, total number of citizen- and officer-initiated service calls, and community complaints. Uncooperative motels will have different leverage points. National budget chains may want to avoid negative publicity. Absentee motel owners may be persuaded to make changes that will reduce their exposure to liability or the likelihood of significant property damage.††; Motel owners or managers involved in criminal activity at their motel can be forced to sell their business or radically change their business practices if they have been charged with or convicted of a crime. However, some motels may change the way they do business onlyunder the threat of nuisance abatement or new local laws governing motel operations.

    † At least 35 percent of Chula Vista motel managers indicated they had experienced the following problems in the prior month: theft, guest’s refusal to leave, loud party, suspected drug dealing, and vandalism/graffiti (Bichler, Christie, and McCord 2003). Improved management practices can reduce the likelihood such problems will occur.

    †† Motel managers in Sandy City, Utah, were convinced that it was in their interest to prevent drug dealers from setting up methamphetamine labs in their motel rooms when informed that the cost of cleaning up and rebuilding a motel room after a drug lab explosion could be as high as $25,000 (Thompson 1999).

    Regulating Management Practices Through CFS/Room Ratios

    The city of Tukwila, Washington, requires motels to implement specific responses based on their yearly CFS/room ratios. All motels fall in one of three tiers established by the city: (1) less than or equal to 0.25 CFS/room/year; (2) 0.26 CFS/room/year to 1.0 CFS/room/year; and (3) more than 1.0 CFS/room/year. Motels and hotels in the tier with the fewest service calls do not have to make any changes. Motels in the middle tier must have a staff member on the property 24 hours a day, maintain a surveillance camera in the lobby at all times, and participate in a crime prevention assessment. Motels in the highest service-call tier must implement the middle-tier requirements, as well as submit employee names to the police department for background checks, train employees in proper management practices, install cameras in parking lots, implement crime-prevention-through- environmental-design recommendations, and make a number of other changes. Since being passed in the summer of 2000, police there report the initiative has reduced service calls by approximately 60 percent at motels with annual CFS/room ratios of more than 1.0.

  3. Establishing and enforcing minimum motel functionality and security standards. All motels should comply with appropriate housing and building codes, and meet minimum security standards established through a combination of court decisions, legislation, and assessments by lodging managers.†;

    † All agree that deadbolts, peepholes, door chains, solid doors and frames, and room telephones constitute basic security measures that all motels should have in place. As far as liability goes, the absence of these measures is considered evidence of unsafe lodging. Motels with established crime problems have also been expected to employ adequate numbers of security guards, install closed-circuit television (CCTV) in problem areas, and secure sliding-glass doors with bars (Slepian 2002).

  4. Establishing crime-and-disorder performance standards and goals. As noted earlier, CFS/room ratios vary significantly, even among comparable motels in comparable neighborhoods. Motels with low CFS/room ratios set a natural baseline for what can be accomplished at similar properties. Motels should be able to maintain annual CFS/room ratios of less than 1.0†; ; action should be taken against those that do not keep calls at or below this level. Incentives for reaching performance goals, such as city-sponsored signage, community development funds, or other enticements, may be offered to motels that maintain annual CFS/room ratios of 0.5 or less.††; Both research and successful crime-reduction projects at motels and other residential properties have shown that motel personnel—especially managers and owners—can effectively control crime and disorder on their properties through proper management practices.19 Managers and owners have the greatest ability to ensure that their properties do not attract problem guests and visitors. However, many managers and owners are under the false impression that only police enforcement can reduce the problems at their motels, and rely primarily on local police to keep the order. Police agencies should avoid becoming de facto security services for motels for two reasons: traditional enforcement tactics are not particularly effective at reducing motel problems, and cities should not routinely subsidize the security operations of a for-profit industry. In general, it is important that police let motel managers or owners decide what specific steps to take to meet local standards. If a police agency recommends specific changes at a motel, and those changes do not bring about the desired results, the motel may have grounds to argue against abatement or other enforcement actions designed to reduce problems.20

    † In some communities, a ratio of 0.5 may be excessive, however, compared to other motels in the area.

    †† Performance standards are not intended to discourage motel staff or others from calling the police in an emergency. Police should conduct a quick door-to-door tenant survey if they suspect a manager is training tenants not to call them. Motel managers facing a performance standard may argue that it is their right to call the police, and they should not be penalized for being proactive. However, if a motel chooses to cater to a high-risk clientele and has a high number of calls for service, the management should completely control access to the property. The management may also need to hire adequate security, both to handle repeat nuisance calls that should not require a police response, and to prevent more-serious incidents from occurring. If a motel cannot afford access-control measures and private security (if necessary), it should stop catering to a high-risk clientele.

Specific Responses to Disorder at Budget Motels

Deterring/Screening Problem Guests and Visitors

  1. Requiring all adult guests and visitors to present government-issued photo ID at the front desk immediately upon arrival. An ID requirement reduces the perception of anonymity at motels, reinforces personal accountability for behavior, and provides police with important information should a crime occur—all reducing the motel’s appeal to problem guests and visitors. At minimum, front desk clerks should collect the following information from both guests and visitors:

    † Like guests, visitors should be directed to the front desk by the security staff or the property design (e.g., fencing that prohibits unimpeded motel access, walkways that lead directly to the front office).

    • full name,
    • home address,
    • home telephone number,
    • date of birth,
    • government ID number and ID type,
    • state and country of ID issuance,
    • time of arrival, and
    • number of assigned or visited room.

    Desk clerks at motels with high CFS/room ratios should also collect the following from registered guests:

    • name, address, and phone number of their employer, and
    • name and telephone number of an emergency contact.21

    Clerks should complete the guests’ registration cards according to information verbally provided by the guests, then ensure the photo IDs contain the same information. Clerks should also visually verify and record guests’ and visitors’ license plate numbers, and issue corresponding parking permits that limit stays.22 Staff should record all guest and visitor information on a government-approved registration form readily accessible to police and other city officials who need to review occupancy levels, such as finance department personnel.

  2. Requiring that guests and visitors be at least 21 years old to rent or visit a room, unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Minors are at particular risk of sexual assault or statutory rape at motels; age limitations on guests and visitors can help prevent these crimes. Maintaining a strict 21-or-older policy for both guests and visitors can also prevent underage drinking in motel rooms.
  3. Maintaining and enforcing “no rent” and “no trespass” lists. Motel managers should retain the names and other registration information of people who have been arrested on the property, have caused a disturbance, have necessitated a call to police, are prohibited from renting at the motel as a result of a temporary restraining order or parole/probation conditions, or did not follow motel rules during rental. Motel management should ban such people from the property for a set period, typically six months to a year. You should consult legal counsel about the particular legal requirements of enforcing such bans in your jurisdiction.
  4. Limiting visitors and contact between strangers. Motels should prohibit visitors between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.; people on the property between those hours should be guests or staff only. At particularly problematic motels, management may want to prohibit visitors entirely. In addition, motels should limit the number of unrelated guests to one or two per room, thus discouraging parties and underage drinking.23 Front desk clerks should refuse to connect callers to rooms if the callers do not know the guests’ full names.24 Implementing and enforcing all of these policies can reduce a motel’s appeal to prostitutes and drug dealers.
  5. Prominently posting notices and signs that clearly outline appropriate guest and visitor behavior, as well as the sanctions that will be levied against violators.25 Sample rules include the following:
    • Picture of a Notice to Guests sign posted at a motel. The sign details the rules of the motel as they pertain to guests.

      Posted signs, clearly stating the rules of the motel, can dissuade guests from engaging in illegal activities. Credit: Karin Schmerler

      No illegal activity (including drug use/sales, prostitution, and underage drinking) is allowed on the premises. If such activity is suspected, the management will notify the police and ask guests to leave the property, without a refund.
    • Room doors must be kept closed at all times.
    • No loitering is allowed on the premises.
    • No public drinking is allowed.
    • Playing loud music is not allowed.
    • Quiet hours are 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
    • All visitors must check in at the front desk.
    • Guest rooms may not be used for private parties.
    • Parking passes must be displayed in all vehicles parked in the lot, or they will be towed at the owners’ expense.
    • The management shares registration information with local police.
  6. Guaranteeing payment from high-risk guests. Motels that have experienced problems with guests who won’t pay or leave can require a two-night cash deposit or a credit card imprint at check-in. This policy can help ensure that motels receive compensation for all rentals, as well as cover any losses or damages that may occur.
  7. Refusing to rent to known or suspected prostitutes, gang members, or drug dealers†, or to anyone clearly intoxicated or under the influence of illicit substances. Motel staff have the right to refuse service to anyone, as long as they do not discriminate against a protected class in making room rental decisions. (To download a list of criminal indicators that can be posted at the front desk for easy clerk reference, see www.chulavistapd.org/motels .) Woodbury, Minnesota, officers provide motels with detailed telephone listings of local escort services so motel clerks can cross-reference outgoing and incoming calls to rooms occupied by suspected prostitutes.26 National City, California, police obtained temporary restraining orders that barred known prostitutes from certain motels.27 Motels may want to consider charging for outgoing local telephone calls, which can discourage motel use by guests who plan to make a lot of local calls.28

    † Prostitutes are often well-known to motel clerks, gang members may have gang-related tattoos, and drug dealers may have previously raised suspicion by making numerous brief phone calls from their rooms during prior motel stays. Based on a review of motel arrests, Sandy City officers developed a profile of people buying and selling drugs at the properties. The typical arrestee used methamphetamine, was between the ages of 18 and 35, provided a local address, and paid in cash at low-priced motels or used a fraudulent credit card at moderately priced motels. The arrestees also generally checked into motels in pairs and without luggage, and made and received numerous local phone calls (Thompson 1999).

  8. Implementing clear check-in policies, and training clerks in their use. Clerks should provide guests and visitors with a copy of the “house rules.” If the motel is experiencing serious problems, clerks should require guests and visitors to read and sign a form. Clerks should also ask guests why they are renting a room, how many visitors they expect, and how long they are staying. If guests indicate they will be staying seven days or more, motel managers should conduct more- extensive screenings, which may involve credit, employment, and prior landlord reference checks.29 Night clerks, who are often recent hires, may need additional training in guest screening and motel security procedures.30
  9. Reinforcing formal and informal social controls over problem guests. Police can inform those who oversee problem guests, such as military command staff and employers of seasonal laborers, about motels that experience relatively high levels of crime and disorder. The military can make problem properties “off limits” to personnel.31 Police should provide oversight officials with details on the types of problems experienced at the motels, and, if applicable, inform them that there are plans to conduct enforcement operations at the properties, as well as change how they are run, so they are more restrictive with respect to photo ID requirements, visitor prohibitions, public drinking, and noise policies. Probation agencies can also set probation and/or parole conditions that prohibit offenders from frequenting specific motels with histories of drug problems and other criminal activity.32

Managing Problem Guests and Visitors

  1. Assigning potential problem guests to rooms near the front office or with high natural surveillance. Some motel managers routinely rent suspicious guests rooms near the front office, so they can better monitor their behavior. Rooms that face a busy street can also provide natural surveillance of problem guests and their visitors.
  2. Employing well-trained, uniformed, on-site security guards, with clear expectations regarding duties. Security guards should regularly and randomly patrol motel grounds and contact people who are loitering or behaving suspiciously. On large properties, guards should patrol on bicycle; on smaller properties, guards should be on foot. On all properties, they should carry professional two-way radios.33 They should pay attention to problem areas; enforce no-trespass lists; photograph trespassers and provide pictures to police and other motel staff; check for vehicles without parking permits and for other lot violations, and knock on the appropriate guests’ doors to have them correct the violations; and generally enforce all house rules regarding noise levels, visitors, etc. Guards should not fraternize with guests or visitors.
  3. Prohibiting “back-in” parking. Some motel guests who engage in illicit activity back into motel parking spaces to make it harder for others to get their license plate numbers,†; and easier for them to leave quickly, if necessary. Prohibiting such parking will make the motel less attractive to those with criminal intentions.

    † Approximately 20 states do not require vehicles to display a front license plate.

  4. Inspecting the rooms of guests who refuse maid service or behave suspiciously after check-in. Guests who have no luggage but anticipate an extended stay, bring a lot of luggage into a room for a one-night stay, or make and receive many local phone calls may be involved in producing methamphetamine.34 If motel managers suspect drugs are being produced or sold, or find drug paraphernalia, they should call the police, who can inspect the room for evidence of illicit activity. You should consult with legal counsel about the laws governing police searches of motel rooms in your jurisdiction.

Changing the Physical Environment

  1. Picture of a motel that was fenced to prevent pull-through traffic.

    This motel fenced an unnecessary entrance/exit to reduce “pull-through” traffic. Credit: Karin Schmerler

    Limiting access to the property. A key feature of a safe motel is its ability to control who has direct access to guest rooms and other parts of the property.†; Motels can limit access in a variety of ways, including the use of perimeter fencing, electronic gates, security guards,35 and a property design that requires all foot and vehicle traffic to pass by the front office.36 Some motels have converted exterior corridors to interior corridors to control access. At a notorious airport motel in Oakland, California, security guards function as a human barrier to those trying to access motel rooms. They send guests to the front desk to register, and ask potential visitors for the full name and room number of the person they want to visit. If visitors can provide this information as it appears on the room rosters the guards have, the guards send them to the front desk to register; if they cannot, the guards ask them to leave. Service calls have dropped by 59 percent since this practice, along with a series of other changes, was implemented. 37 A Charlotte, North Carolina, motel that erected a fence to eliminate non-motel foot traffic increased the motel residents’ perception of safety, and along with the eviction of a problem tenant and improvements in the registration process, reduced service calls by more than 60 percent.38

    † The two most frequent problems experienced by Chula Vista motel managers were (1) too many people in a room (65 percent of managers reported experiencing this problem in the previous month), and (2) unauthorized guests/visitors in rooms (57 percent of managers) (Bichler, Christie, and McCord 2003). Controlling direct access to rooms can substantially reduce both problems.

  2. Installing and monitoring CCTV. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the property entrance(s), in the lobby, in the parking lot, in the pool area, at building entrances and exits, and at other problem locations can help motel staff better monitor the entire property. To address an increase in armed robberies at Marriott’s higher-end budget motels (Fairfield Inn, Residence Inn, and Courtyard) in the mid-1990s, Marriott installed a basic CCTV system in the lobby of more than 80 percent of them. Robbery rates at those motels fell 43 percent the first year after they installed CCTV, and an additional 33 percent the first nine months of the next year. Color monitors were found to be most effective. In addition, motels that installed the monitors in locations visible from outside the motel experienced a more dramatic decline in robberies than those that did not. Finally, contrary to Marriott’s expectations, legitimate customers did not voice concerns about the monitors.39 For it to be effective and not cause undue liability, CCTV must be monitored, which can be time-consuming and tedious.
  3. Installing adequate lighting, and improving the visibility at blind corners with mirrors. Uniform lighting of at least one foot-candle†; for the entire site is recommended; walkways, room entrances, and stairs should be more brightly lit. Three to five foot-candles of lighting are recommended for building entrances.40 Motion-detector lighting can be an additional safeguard in problem areas.

    † A foot-candle is a unit of measurement of light per square foot of surface space. Inexpensive light meters can be used to determine the lighting level at a specific location.

  4. Landscaping and maintaining the property in a way that minimizes crime opportunities and maximizes the perception of ownership. Simply planting and maintaining a low-growth flower garden can signal to problem guests that the property is well-cared-for and unlikely to be suitable for illegal activity. Abandoned vehicles, furniture, and appliances, graffiti, and other signs of neglect should quickly be removed. Pay phones used by problem guests should be altered or removed. You should consult someone trained in the principles of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED)†; for specific recommendations.

    † For more information on CPTED principles, see the International CPTED Association’s website, at www.cpted.net/default.html.

  5. Establishing redesign and property improvement incentives. Areas slated for redevelopment can be rezoned to encourage property improvements that both reduce crime opportunities and improve aesthetics. For example, in Sarasota, Florida, owners of aging motels and other structures built before the current building code was adopted had little incentive to significantly upgrade their properties, as doing so would require full code compliance. To encourage property improvements, the city exempted motel owners in a specially designated redevelopment zone from meeting the code requirements, as long as the proposed upgrades met the overall goals for the zone: to create “…a safe and attractive environment…”41 Cities can also offer low-interest loans or tax credits for major renovations that would allow motels to increase room rates or incorporate CPTED principles into the property design.  

Fostering Responsibility Among Motel Owners†; and Managers for Maintaining Safe Lodging

† It is important to inform and work with problem-motel owners as well as managers, because managers may not have the authority to make changes that could result in a loss of rental revenue (Clarke and Bichler-Robinson 1998).

  1. bar graph depicting the CFS room rates per room, per year
    Informing owners and managers about problems on site.
    Any time police make a drug or prostitution arrest on motel property, they should send a letter to the owner, manager, and any other parties with a financial interest in the property (such as mortgage holders), informing them of the arrest and the consequences to the motel—such as abatement—if the activity continues.†; The letter should request that the motel owner meet with police and/or city legal staff to explain how he or she plans to address the problem.††; Once a year,†††; police should forward each motel a listing of arrests, crime incidents, and service calls that occurred at the property during the prior year, along with an indication of how the motel’s activity level compares with that of similar motels. The annual report should inform managers of their potential exposure to civil liability if they fail to maintain safe properties.††††; Police may also want to consider conducting checks of all registered guests and visitors at problem motels for outstanding warrants, and notifying motel managers and owners of the results (arrests, drugs seized, etc.). Legal advice on conducting such checks is recommended.

    † In a number of states and municipalities, properties where drug dealing or other nuisance behavior, such as prostitution (laws vary), occurs can be closed or otherwise ordered to cease operation.

    †† An evaluation of a San Diego effort to reduce drug dealing by contacting property owners found that those who both received a letter from the police about the illegal activity and participated in a follow-up meeting experienced a 60 percent reduction in reported crime (Eck 1998).

    ††† Problem motels may more frequently require information on arrests, crimes, and service calls. As part of an intensive effort to reduce problems at a Fresno, California, property, an officer personally contacted the owner and manager each time police made an arrest or executed a search warrant at the property ( Fresno 1998 [Full text ]).

    †††† Some courts have held that the burden is on motel management to assess the need for security measures, based on the foreseeability of crime problems at the property. Aspects of foreseeability include the nature and volume of previous crimes at the property, the crime rate of the surrounding neighborhood, guests who commit crime(s), a property design that facilitates crime, the number of calls about suspicious people, and a high visitor-to-guest ratio (Slepian 2002).

  2. Requiring that a manager be on the property at all times. Problems at motels occur at all hours; managers must be available at all times to address the concerns that will inevitably arise during nonbusiness hours. Some motel managers live in their motels. As a general proposition, residential property managers are more likely to employ management practices that will reduce crime and maintain order if the property is also their home.42
  3. Encouraging owners to sign “good neighbor agreements.” Good neighbor agreements may be required for particularly problematic motels. These detailed, signed agreements between motel owners and the police ensure that motels are implementing acceptable management practices appropriate to the property.43
  4. Offering employee training programs. Such programs should cover practices that will aid motel employees in reducing crime, improving business operations, and complying with local laws. Police can provide specific guidelines on conducting background checks on prospective employees, screening guests and visitors, recognizing suspicious activity (such as methamphetamine lab operations), reducing crime opportunities through environmental design, knowing when to call the police, and handling disturbances or crimes such as robberies. Additional topics of interest to motel managers may include crime prevention measures that directly affect motel finances, such as recognizing counterfeit payment methods.44 It is also important to educate motel owners about their potential legal liability if they do not operate safe establishments.45 (Motel managers and owners interested in reducing problems at their properties should see Crime Prevention in Overnight Lodging, a short manual developed specifically for motel managers.

Establishing and Enforcing Regulations and Penalties

  1. Limiting occupancy to no more than 28 days in a 90-day period, and evicting problem tenants. A number of jurisdictions have prohibited motels from housing people on a long term basis—typically for more than a month at a time—citing health and safety reasons.†; If motels cannot be prohibited from housing long-term residents, they should implement more rigorous screening procedures and operate their businesses as landlords, rather than managers.††; Established motel tenants involved in illegal activity should be evicted under existing landlord-tenant laws.†††; The arrest and subsequent eviction of managers and several long-term problem residents of a Fresno motel resulted in a 70 percent decrease in the average number of service calls per month.47

    † In justifying its 30-day stay limit at motels, Buena Park, California, indicated that the lack of ongoing maintenance and maid service at long-stay motels rapidly creates substandard conditions in most, if not all, of the rooms.

    †† For further information about effective rental-property management, see Campbell (2000) [Full text ].

    ††† An evaluation of effective drug abatement efforts found that problem-tenant eviction enabled a large majority of properties to essentially eliminate drug problems and avoid abatement (Davis and Lurigio 1998)

  2. Picture of a code violation at an independent motel.

    Because many independent motels were built more than 50 years ago and owners tend to limit investment in the properties, a number will exhibit moderate to severe code violations. Credit: Adele Sidock

    Conducting regulatory inspections and audits. Regulatory inspections and audits can help ensure that properties comply with relevant fire, building, zoning, property maintenance, and health and safety codes, as well as tax laws. Oakland, California’s Specialized Multiagency Response Team routinely inspects nuisance properties, including motels, to ensure compliance with housing, fire, and safety codes. Properties not in compliance may be sued using civil laws. An evaluation found that this approach was more effective at reducing drug problems in and around targeted properties than traditional enforcement efforts.48 Involving tax authorities can prove particularly effective in encouraging motels to change their business practices.†; Fresno police requested that the city revoke a problem motel’s rooming tax permit on the grounds the motel was violating a municipal code that prohibited allowing unlawful activity on the property; ultimately, the threat of this action forced the owners to sell the motel.49
  3. † In California, the Franchise Tax Board can eliminate tax deductions if a property does not comply with housing codes.

  4. Implementing licensing requirements for lodging establishments, including minimum security, sanitation, and management standards. In Stockton, California, motels must meet minimum standards to obtain a permit to operate. Among other things, permit applicants must demonstrate that the property fully complies with all applicable building, fire, and health codes; that service calls to the property have not been “excessive,” as determined by the police chief; that the premise is governed by a management plan that addresses cleaning schedules and property maintenance; and that the property manager has not been involved in criminal activity for at least five years†; and has completed a motel-management training course co-taught by the police, fire, code enforcement, and environmental health departments, and the local hotel/motel association.50 , ††; During 2002, the program’s first year of operation, 12 of the city’s 59 motels were shut down because they failed to comply with the new requirements. Oakland, California, requires that all motel rooms be secured with deadbolt locks and meet minimum standards regarding conditions and furnishings, as well as linen and mattress cleanliness.51 Motel practices and standards can also be regulated through conditional-use permits, particularly when motel ownership changes hands.

    † The CSUSB study of Chula Vista motels found that only 19 percent of motels that were not family-owned conducted criminal records checks on motel employees.

    †† For a copy of the Stockton ordinance, see www.stocktongov.com/SMC/Chapter07/Ch07_PartIV_Div02.cfm.

  5. Enacting special regulations for adult motels.†; To make it more difficult for prostitutes to operate out of motels, a number of cities have passed laws prohibiting motels from renting rooms on an hourly or half-night basis. Other jurisdictions have established definitions of adult motels to limit where they can be located and to regulate their operations.

    † Sugarland, Texas, has defined adult motels as those that (1) offer public accommodations with CCTV, films, videos, slides, or photos characterized by an emphasis on specified sexual activities; (2) and post a sign visible from the street advertising such material; (3) or offer a sleeping room for rent for less than 10 hours; (4) or allow a tenant or occupant of a sleeping room to sub-rent the room for less than 10 hours.

  6. Requiring a performance bond or other changes at a property in exchange for continued business operation. Oakland police and city officials required a prominent national budget chain to take out a $250,000 performance bond in return for continued operation of a problem motel. The motel had well-documented problems of prostitution and drug sales, and a service-call level substantially above that of neighboring chain motels. Rather than forfeit the $250,000 bond to the city, the motel improved its management practices, hired 24-hour security guards to control access to the property, prohibited visitors between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and instituted a series of other management changes. These changes reduced service calls to the property by 59 percent††; seven months after the agreement was reached, and pushed the motel’s service-call levels down to those of neighboring chain motels, a key stipulation of the agreement. National City officers required a series of changes in return for the continued operation of a motel whose owners had been cited for violating the California state penal code sections that prohibit room rental to known prostitutes.†††; Requiring a performance bond or other changes at a property provides a certain degree of leverage with the property owner. In the case of the Oakland airport motel, the adverse publicity of a drug abatement lawsuit provided the necessary leverage for the company to take out the performance bond. In National City, misdemeanor charges that put the owners on probation for one year gave officers the means for requiring management changes.

    † A performance bond guarantees that the terms of an agreement will be met or the injured party will be financially compensated.

    †† This call reduction was achieved with virtually no police enforcement action. Just one search warrant was served, and several arrests made.

    ††† To prove that the motel was violating the penal code, National City officers paid an hourly rate for rooms and then brought known street prostitutes to the motel, making it clear that they were doing so to have sex in exchange for money. Violation of the penal code provisions enabled officers to obtain a search warrant for the property, which revealed separate bookkeeping practices and tax violations (National City Police Department 2002 [Full text ]).

  7. Seeking cost recovery for excessive city time spent at problem motels. If police can establish that they have, out of necessity, spent an inordinate amount of time at problem motels, they can request reimbursement for that time. Oakland police recovered more than $35,000 for time spent surveilling the budget motel that took out the $250,000 performance bond.52
  8. Closing the property. Problem motels can be closed using a variety of approaches, including nuisance or drug abatement,†; failure to meet legally mandated operation standards, amortization,†; eminent domain,†††; and imminent hazard.††††; Although it can be a lengthy process and is not without costs, property closure (or the threat of property closure) may be the only way to effectively address problems at the worst motels. In the case of abatement, civil penalties that accrue to the local government may help offset property-closure costs. Abatement laws vary by state, and the process can be complicated; legal assistance and full consideration of the benefits and potential pitfalls of the process are a must.†††††;(You can find a full discussion of closure options, their costs and benefits, and their appropriate use, given local crime conditions and the level of effort motel managers make to improve the property, at www.chulavistapd.org/motels.) Once a property is closed, the government can demolish it, sell it, or convert it to permanent housing or some other lawful use. 53

    † In 1999, the University of California, Berkeley, estimated it would cost the city of Oakland approximately $18,000 in legal and administrative costs to close a motel under the state drug nuisance-abatement statute, but only an estimated $1,300 to close the motel if it constituted a public nuisance under the same statute (Amato et al. 1999).

    †† Amortization is a means of terminating a nonconforming use by allowing investors to recoup their investment over a reasonable period, which may range from a few months to several years.

    ††† Eminent domain is the government’s ability to take possession of private property for the public good, usually by providing fair compensation to the owner.

    ††††† An imminent hazard is a structure that is at risk of causing immediate or impending harm to the occupants or their property.

    †††††† In weak real-estate markets, for example, a property that is closed or acquired through abatement may have significant tear-down or conversion costs that could inhibit future property development.

  9. Using asset forfeiture or seizure. Although not widely used because the target property’s value is often low,54 asset forfeiture of motel property has been attempted on several occasions. The Maricopa County, Arizona, Attorney’s Office sought to reduce problems at a motel using state statutes that provide for property seizure if a criminal nuisance is not abated.55 In 1998, the U.S. Attorney in Houston sought to use federal drug asset-forfeiture laws to seize a motel that was the site of drug sales, prostitution, and other serious crimes, despite the fact that the owners did not actively participate in the crimes. Ultimately, the U.S. Attorney did not pursue the forfeiture case because the motel owners agreed to make a number of changes in motel operations.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

  1. Continually arresting offenders at problem properties. A number of police departments have made little impact on motel problems using only traditional tactics.56 Albuquerque, New Mexico, police arrested more than 20 people at a particularly problematic motel during the summer of 1997, but by February 1998, they were again making a lot of arrests there, for drugs and prostitution. It was not until the property was abated as a nuisance in 1999 that the problems there declined.57 National City officers found that the impact of “john” stings (arrests of prostitution customers) were short-lived and did not address the underlying cause of the problem: poor property management. They routinely conducted prostitution stings in the area of a problem motel for four years before concluding that these efforts were not effective over the long term.58 In addition, research on the impact of drug enforcement efforts at apartment complexes and drug houses has found little evidence that traditional tactics are effective in these settings.59 At motels with poor guest screening and management, police face a seemingly limitless supply of offenders not deterred by periodic enforcement efforts.
  2. Conducting field interviews of people at problem motels, and traffic stops of vehicles leaving them; scheduling extra police patrols of problem motels. In Chula Vista, a 91 percent increase in officer-initiated activity in 2001—primarily field interviews, traffic stops, and knock-and-talks—yielded just a 6 percent reduction in citizen-initiated calls for service that year. A 23 percent reduction in officer-initiated activity in 2002 corresponded with a 10 percent reduction in citizen-initiated calls that year. There appeared to be no relationship between the level of police-initiated activity and the level of citizen calls for assistance.60 Police did not inform motels about the increased enforcement activity. A subsequent analysis of 48 months of call data to the Chula Vista motel with the most service calls found that there was a very weak and statistically insignificant relationship between police enforcement activity and citizen-initiated calls.
  3. Implementing Crime-Free Hotel/Motel programs. A spin-off of the Crime-Free Multi-Housing program, this initiative involves certifying properties as “crime-free” if the managers have completed the requisite training courses and the properties conform to general CPTED principles. Although a number of aspects of the Crime-Free Hotel/Motel (CFHM) program are effective strategies and recommended in this guide, the program itself has limitations. As currently structured, the CFHM program requires police or other city officials to spend a significant amount of time helping motels go through the three-phase process to become certified crime-free properties. Motels that participate in the program often see a reduction in service calls, but participation is voluntary, and problem motels frequently opt out.†; Turnover at motels can also hamper the program, as new personnel have to be trained in CFHM principles.61

    † In Mesa, Arizona, where the CFHM concept was developed and implemented in 1997, the majority of motels did not participate in the CFHM program as of July 2001.