Coastal NJ motels are demolished, leaving homeless people with few options

SEASIDE HEIGHTS – The Aquarius Motel is gone, soon to be replaced by eight new homes. Just down the street, the Mark III Motel is up for sale, while a short distance away, the Belmont Motel is set to meet the wrecking ball, with 14 homes slated for its site.

A booming real estate market has led small motel owners to cash in and sell their properties, not just in Seaside, but all over the Jersey Shore. While cities are welcoming the new residential development, it has created problems for those seeking shelter for homeless residents.

Finding motels to house people is becoming increasingly difficult; many area motels have closed or been bought out by developers in recent years, which means far fewer rooms are available, said Ashlee Pense, guest services coordinator for the HOPE Center in Toms River .

Pense has said in the past that it has dozens of motels available for homeless residents, but only about five remain that can temporarily house customers.

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“There has obviously been a great need for housing, and a lack of availability,” she said. “There are a lot of customers who stay in motels. Consider that their rent could be $300 a week just to stay in a motel. That doesn’t include anything else.”

Paul Hulse, president and CEO of Just Believe Inc., a Toms River-based charity that advocates for and helps the homeless, said the shortage of motel rooms also means prices have risen.

Seaside Heights will help pay for the demolition of the Belmont Motel on Sheridan Avenue, to make way for the redevelopment of the property.

“We pay $1,000 a week for one person to stay in a motel,” Hulse said. “I expect it to be even higher in the summer.”

Hulse said prices have risen steadily, straining the budgets of nonprofits like Just Believe.

“A year or two ago we were paying $350 a week, and then it went up to $500 a week in the summer,” Hulse said. “Last year it was $1,000 and I said Holy Moly.”

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Part of the problem is a steady decline in the number of motel rooms available.

Seaside Heights has lost 200 motel and hotel rooms — about 15% of the borough’s total number — as motels continue to be bought up for redevelopment, said Mike Loundy, owner of Seaside Realty at Seaside Heights and Borough Director of Community Development.

Demolition of the Red Carpet Inn in downtown Toms River began Thursday afternoon, July 18, 2019.

The former Travelodge, also known as the Travel Inn, was one of the first larger motels to be redeveloped. The Bay Boulevard property is now home to a community restricted by age and income for those 55 and older.

Motels aren’t just disappearing from the barrier island. They are also redeveloped on the mainland.

The Pine Rest Motel in Toms River on Route 37 has been demolished and a new hotel is to be built there. The Red Carpet Inn, located at Main and Water streets in downtown Toms River, was purchased by the township and demolished.

It will be replaced by two 10-storey apartment towers. And the Americana Motel on Route 166, later known as the Parkway Motel, was closed by the township and is set to be torn down and replaced with a four-story Avid Hotel.

In many cases, motels that have been demolished or sold have been deemed a nuisance by city leaders, attracting unwanted police activity. Toms River declared the Red Carpet Inn a public nuisance; police responded to 750 red carpet incidents from 50 rooms from 2016 to 2018.

That didn’t stop a group of homeless advocates from asking the township to consider turning the red carpet into a shelter after Toms River bought it.

The cabins at the rear of the Pine Rest Motel property in Toms River have been boarded up.

“This provides a ready-made opportunity for Toms River to model an enlightened community,” said Connie Pascale, a local attorney who has long been pushing for the county to open a homeless shelter. “Instead of creating an empty lot, we need to use this facility to solve an existing problem.”

While township council members expressed sympathy for homeless advocates, they said the red carpet was not the place for a homeless shelter.

Meanwhile, in Seaside Heights, the borough targeted nine rental properties — including three motels — last summer, deciding to revoke their business licenses after citing landlords for code violations and repeated police calls.

Americana Motel, Toms River.

Mayor Anthony Vaz said Seaside Heights is not “anti-motel.”

“We want the daily trade. We want the weekly trade,” the mayor said. “But we also want to attract full-time residents to live here.”

Just Believe’s Hulse said the lack of available motels has forced Ocean County Social Services and some nonprofits to place homeless residents in shelters outside the county.

“Someone who is in a homelessness situation, 9 out of 10 times they don’t have a vehicle, they don’t have a cell phone,” Hulse said. If placed in a motel in Atlantic County, for example, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a homeless resident to access the social services they need in Ocean County.

Hulse said the dwindling number of motels highlights the need for transitional housing in Ocean County.

Ocean County is the only county in New Jersey that does not have such a homeless facility. County Commissioners Gary Quinn, Barbara “Bobbi Jo” Crea, and Virginia E. “Ginny” Haines have all indicated their willingness to speak to advocates about creating such a facility, though they have made it clear that the county will not didn’t want to exploit it.

“I think we have to look at the real reality,” Hulse said. “Finding motels is getting harder and harder for nonprofits that use motels. You don’t really have cheap motels anymore.”

Jean Mikle has covered Toms River and several other towns in Ocean County, and has been writing about local government and politics on the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She is also passionate about the Shore’s historic music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, [email protected]