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Motel Conversion: A Motel Becomes a Model for Affordable Housing

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Motel Conversion: A Motel Becomes a Model for Affordable Housing

A dilapidated Econo Lodge motel becomes the prototype for an adaptive reuse program to provide supportive housing

By Michele Lerner October 14, 2023
Street view of Buena Esperanza, an adaptive reuse motel conversion into affordable multifamily housing
This adaptive reuse project transformed a blighted motel in Los Angeles into modern, permanent supportive housing for 69 formerly homeless residents. | Image: Juan Tallo Photography
This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Pro Builder.

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When Jamboree Housing, an affordable housing nonprofit headquartered in Irvine, Calif., approached Manuel Salazar to renovate an obsolete Econo Lodge motel in nearby Anaheim, his first thought was that this adaptive reuse motel conversion would be simple to deliver. 

“I thought this would be just a kitchen update and new paint, but that’s not the Jamboree philosophy,” says Salazar, managing director and senior associate at Y&M Architects, in Los Angeles. “They wanted to create a home, a place where people will feel they’re better off.”

Before and after images of the motel conversion of an Econo Lodge motel into affordable housing
Buena Esperanza’s new Spanish hacienda style transformed an Econo Lodge motel from drab to dramatic. The adaptive reuse project provides attractive, attainable multifamily housing and support services. | All images: Juan Tallo Photography
The community center in Buena Esperanza, a Los Angeles adaptive reuse motel conversion project
The motel conversion's new 1,800-square-foot community center provides space for residents to congregate and participate in social and educational activities. 
The courtyard in Buena Esperanza, a motel conversion to housing
For stormwater management, permeable brick pavers in the courtyard allow 100% of rainwater to pass through into the soil below. 

From Motel to Housing

Adaptive Reuse Project Specs for Buena Esperanza 

Location: Anaheim, Calif.
Lot size: 1.04 acres
Total built size: 38,420 square feet
Unit sizes: 302 to 417 square feet 
Developer and builder: Jamboree Housing, and Jamboree Quality Development and Construction, Irvine, Calif.
Architect: Y&M Architects, Los Angeles
Interior designer: JAG Interiors, Calabasas, Calif.
Landscape architect: Mark Beall & Associates, Los Angeles
Photos: Juan Tallo Photography

A Motel Conversion Takes Shape

To deliver that sense to residents, each of the 69 motel rooms on two levels was enhanced with larger windows, better lighting, and a lighter color palette to make them feel larger. The adaptive reuse project also included upgrades to bathrooms and kitchenettes with Energy Star-certified appliances—all in roughly 300-to-400-square-foot studio apartments (including some accessible units) that rent for less than $1,000 per month exclusively to residents earning 30% or less of the area’s average median income.

Repurposing the motel also included replacing or repairing its water-damaged exterior stucco and interior drywall, transforming the look of the tired building into a vibrant, attractive Spanish hacienda-style design. The look suits the property’s new name, Buena Esperanza, which means “Good Hope.” 

“I like the idea of taking old, abandoned hotels and transforming them into housing for formerly homeless people.” —Manuel Salazar

“We deliberately kept the units small to encourage residents to interact in the communal spaces,” Salazar says, referring to what Jamboree calls “wraparound services,” including a new 1,800-square-foot community center with a computer lab, communal kitchen, living area, laundry facilities, and rooms for counseling and teaching life skills. 

The motel’s old lobby now houses smaller communal, learning, and office spaces and the footprint also now features a community garden. “The amenities and service spaces were a priority to create a place where people could thrive,” Salazar says. “Community-building is essential to help this population.”

Community center interior at Buena Esperanza, an adaptive reuse motel to housing conversion


Buena Esperanza community kitchen in the motel to housing conversion project


Computer lab and coffee bar at Buena Esperanza, an adaptive reuse conversion of a motel into housing
The light-filled community center includes a large-screen TV and a billiards table, as well as a comfortable coffee bar, a computer lounge, a communal kitchen, and an eating/conversation area. 


Motel Adaptive Reuse: Not So Easy 

While the challenge for Salazar was to create a community from what was essentially an institutional building, the Jamboree team needed to develop financing and services partnerships to pull off the motel-to-housing conversion.

“There was a big push in Orange County and from the state to fund permanent, supportive housing for formerly homeless people,” says Michael Massie, chief real estate development officer for Jamboree Housing. “The idea was that reusing a motel would be both cheaper and easier than a ground-up development, but it wasn’t quite as easy or as cheap as we thought.”

Jamboree coordinated financing from multiple sources, including private funding from Disneyland and U.S. Bank, along with Low Income Housing Tax Credits and public funds from California, the City of Anaheim, Orange County, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Though it pitched in financially, the city was initially skeptical about the size of the units, Massie says, which altered the project's scope a bit. “City officials encouraged us to take away more parking and build more community space for the residents,” he says. “We had to draw up a new ordinance with the city and the planning department because the land was entitled for commercial use instead of residential.”

In repurposing the motel for housing, the project team also had to convince skeptical neighbors that Buena Esperanza would improve the area. All of the 69 furnished studio units are reserved for veterans, individuals living with mental illness, and formerly unhoused people. “A lot of people didn’t want homeless people moved into that location, but when we revealed the look and vision for Buena Esperanza, that helped change minds in the community,” Salazar says. No doubt, the adaptive reuse project improved the trek along La Palma Avenue, a major commercial/industrial corridor in Anaheim, and the motel conversion to housing complements newer residential development across the street. 

Buena Esperanza apartment interior
Each studio apartment is fully furnished and includes a private bathroom, a small kitchen, and a living/sleeping area. | Image: Juan Tallo

In recognition of its success, Buena Esperanza won a Platinum Award and a Community Impact Award in the 2022 Best in American Living Awards (BALA) Multifamily Adaptive Reuse category. More importantly, this adaptive reuse motel conversion served as the prototype for the $2.75 billion expansion of California’s Homekey program, which funds the acquisition of obsolete motels and renovates them to get people off the street and help transition them to permanent supportive housing, Massie says. 

Buena Esperanza floor plans


Buena Esperanza site plans

Michele Lerner is an award-winning real estate journalist in the Washington, D.C., area.


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