Sex workers and drugs in the Valley’s ‘red light district.’ Can this Fresno area be fixed?

In the middle of March, 30 Fresno Police officers launched a day-long, undercover operation on Fresno’s Parkway Drive — commonly referred to as Motel Drive — and arrested 30 suspected johns.

Investigators watched men hanging out on motel balconies duck inside rooms after they caught glimpses of officers.

In 2018, officers made more than 300 felony arrests on Parkway Drive.

“This is the red light district for the whole Valley,” said Miguel Arias, the Fresno city council member whose district includes Parkway Drive.

Motels like the ones on Parkway Drive attract human trafficking and drugs, and often become substandard housing for Fresno’s extremely poor families, he said. Other motels throughout the city, including on G Street, Golden State Boulevard and Blackstone Avenue, also are deteriorating and attract similar illegal activity.

Arias is pushing new regulations at City Hall to tackle the issue. The proposal, up for a vote by the City Council on Thursday, would create an inspection program for motels. If the motels don’t meet basic health and safety standards, owners would be subject to citations, abatement proceedings, injunctions, receivership and possibly criminal charges.

The proposal is cosponsored by Council Members Esmeralda Soria and Nelson Esparza.

Housing crunch

“Unfortunately, motels like this across our city have an 80 percent vacancy rate,” Arias said. “While we’re in a housing crisis and we need good-quality housing, these motels have only become a magnet for human trafficking and drug trafficking.”

Housing advocates said they support improving protections for people living in motels, but they worry about families who may be displaced.

“Since we know these conditions are also a direct reflection of a severe shortage of decent affordable housing in Fresno, the city must ensure that families have somewhere to go and to live,” said Andy Levine with Faith in the Valley - Fresno, a group that advocates for tenants rights.

The proposed inspection program would operate in a similar way as the city’s current rental housing inspection program. If an operator fails to comply and fix violations, the motel would go into receivership with the city and then be sold or converted to affordable housing, Arias said.

In that case, the city would move forward with a displacement plan for people put out of a home.

Mayor Lee Brand said he supports the proposal. “I see this as another important step toward improving the quality of life in Fresno, and I look forward to working closely with the city manager to move this program forward,” he said in an emailed statement to The Bee.

Signs of improvement

Early this year, Mayor Lee Brand gathered the motel owners, city code enforcement and southwest police officers to create a motel association. So far about 15 motel owners, mostly from Parkway Drive, have joined and are collaborating to reduce short-term stays and local stays and create a shared database identifying problem guests, city officials said.

The city also painted curbs red in the area to prevent drivers from lingering and picking up sex workers.

One of the hotel owners on Parkway Drive said the area has improved since the city started cracking down on motel owners. The owner, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation, said he runs a strict business and doesn’t rent out rooms to customers with a history of causing problems.

“If somebody didn’t clean up, they got hard words from Miguel Arias and the city. Now they’re listening,” he said.

He thinks the motel owners will clean up their act, as long as the city continues to enforce the rules.

Earlier this week, police Capt. Mark Salazar took to Facebook to describe the progress made on Parkway Drive.

Salazar said compared to this time last year, crime in the area has dropped about 25 percent and the motels on Parkway are no longer in the police department’s top three calls for service. “We have more work to do but it feels different out there,” he said.

Since the beginning of this year, officers have built relationships with motel owners and code enforcement is working with the motel owners to improve lighting and security, he said.

Last weekend, 40 community-based organizations gathered at Parkway Drive to offer services to the people who live there or frequent the area.

The City Council will vote on Arias’ proposal during Thursday’s meeting, which begins at 9 a.m., at 2600 Fresno Street.

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.