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Disorder at Budget Motels

Guide No. 30 (2005)

by Karin Schmerler

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The Problem of Disorder at Budget Motels

This guide begins by describing the problem of disorder at budget motels, and reviewing factors that contribute to it.† It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

† Temporary overnight lodging falls into two general categories: motels and hotels. At motels, guests (registered room occupants) and visitors (people who enter the grounds but are not registered guests) can directly access rooms without having to enter the motel lobby or main building. At hotels, guests and visitors must pass through the front lobby or enter the building through an outside door and an interior corridor to get to the rooms.

A wide variety of problems occur at budget motels, including

†† An analysis of motel calls for service in Chula Vista, California, found that the most typical citizen call was about a disturbance of some sort. A significant portion involved guests who wouldn't leave or pay (Morris 2003).

††† For further information, see Thefts of and From Cars in Parking Facilities, Guide No. 10 in this series.
†††† For further information, see Clandestine Drug Labs, Guide No. 16 in this series. 

Many of these problems can be reduced through better motel management, design, and regulation.

In a number of communities, certain motels generate significant numbers of service calls and consume inordinate levels of police resources. Problem motels are frequently hot spots for both nuisance activity and more serious incidents, such as robbery and sexual assault. In addition, problem motels inhibit nearby economic redevelopment1 and reduce the number of safe, clean lodging units available for tourists and travelers.

Factors Contributing to Disorder at Budget Motels

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

The very nature of overnight lodging makes it conducive to crime and disorder. Motels and hotels house people only temporarily, often in commercial areas with high crime rates. Because budget motels offer low rates, accept cash, and often have a relatively unrestricted environment, local residents with illicit or antisocial intentions find them particularly attractive. Drug sales, prostitution, loud parties, and other activities can often be undertaken at motels with less risk than at private residences. Motel guests have little motivation to report drug dealing and prostitution because they have no long-term stake in the motel. In addition, motel managers often have a limited opportunity to get to know the backgrounds of the people on their premises. Finally, in municipalities that lack the resources to provide motel oversight, motel managers have little incentive to accept responsibility for problems.

Motels attract crime, in that people inclined to commit it† are drawn to them because their conditions and reputations are favorable for doing so.2 Poorly managed motels also enable crime by attracting offenders to a location with weak oversight.3

† In Chula Vista, an estimated 21 percent of guests and visitors at several problem motels were on probation or parole, compared with less than 2 percent of California's overall adult population (Theisen 2002a).

Motel Economics

In 2002, the lodging industry posted revenues of more than $102 billion.4

In general, lodging establishments that charge nightly rates of less than $60 fall under the budget category. However, both the price and the amenities at budget motels can vary greatly.†† Room rates—even for the same motel chain—differ significantly by location, season, and day of week. The upscale budget motels (which account for 25 percent of all U.S. lodging units) are typically chain motels, some of which cater to business travelers and tourists and offer fitness centers, complimentary breakfasts, and premium movie channels. Low-end budget motels (13 percent of all U.S. lodging)5 are typically independent properties that charge $20 to $45 per night, and may not offer any amenities except for cable movies.

†† Some motels in the rural Southwest have nightly rates of less than $20; in these markets, motels with nightly rates of $35 are high-end. In contrast, low-end budget motels in major metropolitan areas generally charge between $30 and $45 a night, and high-end budget motels may charge up to $80 a night. The rates quoted in this guide do not apply to all motels, but are included to give you a general idea of the cost of budget lodging.

While some low-end motels offer safe, clean lodging (and some high-end motels do not), low-end motels are more likely to experience crime and disorder problems. A study of Chula Vista motels by California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), found that low room rates were strongly correlated with higher call-for-service rates.6 Compared with motels that charged from $41 to $60 a night, those that charged $40 or less per night had twice the number of service calls per room, and more than two-and-a-half times the number of arrests per room.7

Cheap motels did not always pose crime and disorder problems. In the 1930s and 1940s, individually owned and operated motels offered travelers an eclectic, economical array of relatively safe lodging options. In the 1950s, corporations such as Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson sought to capitalize on the growing national travel market by offering consumers brand-name, standardized lodging. The interstate highways built in the 1950s and 1960s favored the chains by essentially rerouting motorists away from the older, independent establishments, many of which were located along aging roads that ran parallel to—but were difficult to access from—the new interstates.8 In some cases, major motel chains built their properties right at the interstate exits; motorists seeking independent motels had to bypass the chains and venture farther from the interstate to find them.

In an effort to attract customers, older motels such as this urban Arizona establishment offer rock-bottom prices for longer term guests, essentially creating low-income housing.

In an effort to attract customers, older motels such as this urban Arizona establishment offer rock-bottom prices for longer term guests, essentially creating low-income housing. Credit: Steve Morris.

The smaller, non-chain motels had difficulty competing with the large national chains under these circumstances. To survive economically, they began catering to the lower end of the market; some turned into adult motels,† while others served as housing for low-income people. Unable to afford upkeep, many of the formerly quaint motels deteriorated and became havens for crime and disorder.†† Unsightly and crime-prone motels can inhibit economic growth in the surrounding areas.

† The definition of "adult motels" varies from one jurisdiction to the next, but they often rent rooms by the hour and advertise the availability of in-room pornographic movies.

†† There is evidence that drug dealers sometimes operate out of financially strained motels and apartment complexes because the property managers are unlikely to have the will or resources to stop them (Eck 1995b [Abstract only]).

Motel Layout and Features

Originally built to accommodate the adventurous traveler of the 1930s and 1940s, motels were marketed as driver-friendly-motorists could drive right up to their rooms. 9, ††† Ironically, what was originally a selling point is now one of the most detrimental aspects of motels, from a crime prevention standpoint. Direct access to rooms allows problem guests and visitors to come and go without being seen by motel personnel. Regardless of size,†††† motels with unimpeded pedestrian and vehicle access to rooms can be difficult to manage, and may have a relatively high number of service calls if they serve a risky clientele.

††† The word "motel" is derived from the words "motorist" and "hotel."

†††† More than half of the 41,000 lodging establishments in the United States have between 15 and 75 rooms. The majority of these properties are likely motels, although some larger motels may have up to 200 rooms, American Hotel & Lodging Association 2003, http://www.ahla.com

Motel Personnel

Drive-up motel rooms allow unrestricted and anonymous access to guest quarters at any hour of day or night. Credit: Karin Schmerler

Unlike hotels, many motels have a small staff. In some cases, the same individual who owns the motel also manages it and works the front desk. A midsize budget motel generally has an owner, a manager, one or more front desk clerks, several housekeepers, and, sometimes, a security guard, typically on contract. Upper-end and larger budget motels usually have additional staff that fill these roles.

Although there are notable exceptions, family-operated motels tend to have higher calls-for-service-per-room (CFS/room) ratios than chain motels. The CSUSB study found that family-operated motels' CFS/room ratios were 60 percent higher than those at non-family-operated motels.10 As of 2000, approximately 60 percent of hotels and motels were chain lodgings, and 40 percent were independently owned and operated.11

Motel Clientele

At a typical lodging establishment, 80 percent of the guests are tourists, business travelers, or meeting or convention attendees. The remaining 20 percent have other reasons for staying, including personal reasons and special events.12 By contrast, at budget motels with crime and disorder problems, it is not unusual to find that 80 percent or more of the guests are local residents staying for personal reasons, and just 20 percent of the guests are tourists or business travelers. There is some indication that motels experience a "tipping point" with respect to clientele. If a motel rents out rooms to enough problem guests, then more problem guests—and fewer legitimate guests—will be attracted to that motel. In some cases, just one problem guest can discourage legitimate guests from renting rooms.13

A number of motels cater predominantly to local clients with a wide variety of reasons for renting budget rooms. Low-income workers sometimes seek long-term housing at motels rather than apartments, because motels do not require a first and last month's deposit and let guests "pay as they go." People living day-to-day may be able to pay $38 a night for a motel room (with an average monthly total of more than $1,100), but unable to pay $500 all at once for an apartment. Motels also offer free furnishings, as well as cable television, electricity, and a telephone.14 People lacking steady jobs also rent motel rooms nightly, short term, or long term, for the same reasons.†

† In Anaheim, California, where the typical apartment costs $1,200 a month, an estimated 2,000 of the city's 310,000 residents lived in motels full time before the city enacted long-term rental restrictions on the properties (Hill and Associated Press 2000)

Seasonal or short-term laborers, such as migrant and construction workers, also rent budget motel rooms, for anywhere from several weeks to several months.†† In some cases, government agencies that subsidize housing refer specific groups of people to motels. For example, the agencies sometimes provide public-assistance recipients and parolees with housing vouchers they can use at motels.

†† Seasonal laborers staying at motels for long periods can create ready markets for prostitution and drugs; if the laborers are paid in cash and do not use banks, they are particularly vulnerable to robbery or room burglary.

A considerable number of budget-motel users seek rooms for criminal or nuisance purposes. Prostitutes and their customers rent rooms to secure safe, cheap places to conduct business; drug dealers use motels to contact buyers and make transactions; smugglers use motels as way stations for people they've smuggled into the country; and partiers rent rooms to get away from their usual environment, drink alcohol or use drugs, and generally behave in ways that are less acceptable at home.

The Calls-for-Service-per-Room Ratio: A Common Denominator

Using a calls-for-service-per-room (CSF/room) ratio allows for a standardized comparison of problem levels across motels of different sizes. The ratio is computed by dividing a motel's total number of calls for service in a 1-year period by the number of rooms at the motel. For example:

87 CFS / 39 rooms = 2.2 CFS/room

52 CFS / 12 rooms = 4.3 CFS/room

You can use both citizen- and officer-initiated calls to calculate CFS/room ratios—either independently, for different perspectives on motel problems, or together, for total CFS/room ratios. To download an Excel spreadsheet you can use to calculate CFS/room ratios, see www.chulavistapd.org/motels.

Regardless of their motivation for frequenting motels, guests and visitors who live within 30 miles of a motel tend to be higher-risk clients and cause more problems than tourists or business travelers. The probation rates of problem-motel guests and visitors who provided local addresses to Chula Vista officers were 13 times those of California's general adult population. In contrast, no tourists questioned at the same motels indicated they were on probation or parole.15 In addition, the CSUSB study found that the percentage of local guests staying at a motel was positively correlated with the motel's CFS/room ratio; in other words, the higher the number of local guests, the higher the number of CFS/room.16

Long-term† guests also pose risks for motels. The CSUSB study found that the average length of stay at a motel was strongly correlated with citizen-initiated CFS/room ratios: the longer the average stay, the higher the citizen-initiated CFS/room ratio.17 Because they are designed to accommodate short-term guests, motel rooms are not typically stocked with cleaning products such as disinfectants, rags, dusters, mops, and vacuum cleaners, and can quickly deteriorate without frequent housekeeping and maintenance—services that low-end motels do not generally provide.18 Problem long-term guests are also difficult to remove from motels. In many jurisdictions, motel guests are considered legal tenants after 28 days of renting, and managers must have them evicted if they want them to leave.

† A person who stays seven or more days at a motel can be considered a long-term guest. In some jurisdictions, making weekly payments for motel rooms constitutes tenancy (Campbell DeLong Resources Inc. [Full text ] and Portland Police Bureau 1999).

Prostitutes are among the riskiest clients motels serve. The CSUSB report found that motels that reported having problems with prostitution in the prior month had very high average CFS/room ratios compared with motels that reported other serious problems, including drug sales.

Due to the number of people that pass through a motel on a given night, and the need to quickly make decisions on nightly rentals, managers cannot conduct the type of lengthy background checks on would-be guests that are typically done on prospective apartment renters. In addition, if business is down or motels have trouble attracting legitimate guests due to substandard facilities, staff might rent to suspicious guests to maintain cash flow. They also may have difficulty turning down undesirable guests during slow seasons.

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