Despite nervousness about public speaking, Charles Wright appears pumped as he heads to the podium during the opening day celebration of Buena Esperanza in Anaheim on Monday, August 23, 2021. The converted motel is now permanent housing for homeless veterans like Wright, and others who are struggling. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

By ALICIA ROBINSON | | The Orange County RegisterPUBLISHED: August 24, 2021 at 7:19 a.m. | UPDATED: August 24, 2021 at 7:19 a.m.

It was an aging Econo Lodge, but now two years and $25.4 million later, the former motel in Anaheim has been transformed into a community with 69 furnished studio apartments, a recreation room, support services for its residents and that holy grail of Southern California housing: affordable rents.

Charles Wright said he was “blown away” when he moved into Buena Esperanza in Anaheim two weeks ago. “It had everything I could ever want,” he said during the grand opening celebration on Monday, August 23, 2021. The converted motel is now permanent housing for homeless veterans like Wright, and others who are struggling. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Called Buena Esperanza, the new community is specifically for those who may have struggled to find, or stay in, a home, including military veterans, people with mental illness and formerly homeless people. The complex was about 60% occupied as of Monday, when developer Jamboree Housing and other partners on the project celebrated a grand opening.

The apartment community’s name was taken from a ranch that once occupied the property, Jamboree CEO Laura Archuletta said, and its concept – turn an old motel into new affordable homes – was used as “a blueprint and a road map” for the state’s Project Homekey, which has provided millions to cities across California to remake hotels as long-term housing.

The former motel on West La Palma Avenue is also the first project in the city under a 2019 ordinance intended to streamline the process of converting vacation lodgings that have outlived their usefulness, as Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu put it Monday.

“This project is everything a home should be: it represents a fresh start and a bright future,” Sidhu said. “We are getting people off the street, into homes, with the help they need to stay there.”

City leaders also hope the example will help encourage more such conversions among a crop of about 20 older motels on the city’s west side that, before the Disneyland resort was fully developed, were a convenient stopover for vacationers headed to the beach, but now are sometimes used as “housing of last resort,” Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said.

Those past-their-prime motels don’t provide families much space in return for their dollar, and some of them generate complaints about prostitution, human trafficking and drug use, he said. Turning them into new long-term housing is a solution that can help meet the need for homes and spruce up an older part of town.

“We take that old motel that may have been a nuisance and we fix it up – and as we see with Buena Esperanza, now within a certain radius it may be the nicest building in the area,” Lyster said.

Buena Esperanza’s studio apartments – each outfitted with a bed, table and chairs, plus a microwave, refrigerator and built-in, two-burner stovetop, and with access to services such as job placement and counseling – were exactly what resident Charles Wright was looking for when he moved in about two weeks ago.

Wright, 61, is a Marine veteran who said he found himself homeless and living in his car after his marriage of more than three decades ended.

After praying that he’d find permanent housing, he reached out to Veterans Affairs staff and eventually got introduced to the manager of Buena Esperanza, who helped him apply for an apartment.

Wright said he wanted a place he didn’t have to share with roommates, where he could stretch out on his own bed.

“When I get off work, I can tell people, ‘I’m going home,’” he said. “I go in there and I can relax and not have to worry about things too much.”

Residents will pay a portion of their rent depending on their income, with the average rent around $283 a month, according to information from Jamboree Housing.

The project was a cooperative effort, using loans from the state, the city and the Orange County Housing Trust (with funding from the Disneyland Resort), tax credits and other financing from U.S. Bank and the California Community Reinvestment Corp., and other support from the county and Providence St. Joseph.

Jamboree also oversaw conversion of two motels in Stanton that opened last year to house about 140 formerly homeless people, and it’s working on projects in Santa Ana and Buena Park that are expected to be ready for about 146 residents in 2022.