ATLANTA (AP) – For more than five years, Armetrius Neason’s home has been a hotel on the outskirts of Atlanta. He has adorned the walls with dozens of images of celebrities and black icons. It is the address on your driver’s license and where you receive the mail.
But last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, the hotel accused him of owing $ 1,800 in back rent and threatened to lock him out, the 58-year-old said.
“I was packing my clothes. I really had nowhere to go, “he recalled during a telephone interview.
Efficiency Lodge said that Neason, despite his long stay, was a guest who could start the property without filing an eviction case in court.
“If you go to a Holiday Inn and you don’t pay your room rate, the next day your key won’t work,” said Roy Barnes, a former Georgia governor and attorney for the hostel, who is co-owner of his brother, Ray Barnes. “It is the same law.”
Neason’s struggles reflect the increased risk of homelessness facing motel and hotel dwellers during the pandemic, housing attorneys say. Many states do not clearly define when hotel and motel guests become tenants, a designation traditional tenants have that entitles them to challenge an eviction attempt in front of a judge. Hotel guests, on the other hand, can be summarily removed.
The legal gap made life in a motel riskier than renting a typical home, even before the pandemic. Now it is even less stable, lawyers say. The loss of jobs during the pandemic has made it difficult for millions of Americans to rent. But hotel guests are excluded from a federal moratorium on evictions for people facing financial difficulties during the coronavirus outbreak.
Residents of hotels and motels in California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and Virginia have reported being evicted or threatened with immediate eviction in the past year.
“It’s the people who are even more economically vulnerable than most low-income renters,” said Alexis Erkert, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans who has fought motel evictions during the pandemic.
Hotel owners say they have also been affected during the COVID-19 outbreak and need paying customers to cover expenses.
“They just want their assets and livelihood to be protected like anyone else,” said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
In another recent dispute over a hotel in Georgia, Demetress Malone accused Lodge Atlanta staff of removing her door, cutting off her power, removing her air conditioning unit, and changing the lock after she had trouble paying rent for the room she had. had occupied for about a year. according to a lawsuit he filed against the property. A call and email to a Lodge Atlanta attorney, Frank C. Bedinger, were not returned. A judge sided with Malone in November and said the hotel had to file an eviction case against him in court.
At Efficiency Lodge, a private security guard carried an assault rifle and pointed at residents as he went door-to-door forcing them to leave in September, according to Neason’s attorney, Lindsey Siegel, and a lawsuit he and another current resident filed. against property. Siegel is a member of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life, just to get a person out on the street,” Neason said. “You had to go then.”
Roy Barnes denied that residents were forced out at gunpoint, saying security personnel were looking for two people wanted for murder.
Neason, who works as a carpenter, came to the hotel in 2016 and was paying his $ 200 weekly rent, but said a hotel employee told him he didn’t have to pay the full amount during the pandemic. He was later presented with a bill for the back rent, he said.
The room he lives in has a small kitchen with two electric burners. He has hung colorful sports caps off the hook in one corner and keeps free weights near the TV stand.
Advocates say lawsuits from hotel residents are rare and many other moves go unreported.
“These are people who have already been stretched to their limits, they are broke,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Center for Homeless Law. “A lot of them assume, ‘I’m staying as a guest at this motel.’
Federal data suggests that an increasing number of people rely on motels and hotels for long-term accommodations. The number of students in the U.S. who identified a hotel or motel as their primary overnight residence increased by nearly a quarter between the 2015-2016 and 2017-2018 school years to more than 105,000, according to figures submitted by the states. to the US Department of Education Education.
But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention excludes hotels or motels rented to a “temporary guest or seasonal tenant,” terms left to define by local law, from its eviction moratorium in effect until March. Some states have stepped up to try to protect motel residents.
New Jersey has its own moratorium that explicitly protects people who continuously live in motels and hotels and do not have a permanent home to which they can safely or legally return. Halvorsen said dozens of hotels have reported guests taking advantage of the stricter rule by checking in and then refusing to pay or leave.
The attorney general’s office in North Carolina warned nearly 100 hotels and motels in the state at the start of the pandemic that their residents could qualify as renters. The Georgia Department of Law offered similar guidance.
But housing experts say that without a clearly defined rule about when a hotel stay is no longer temporary or seasonal, residents of such properties remain vulnerable to quick eviction when they can’t pay.
In January, a DeKalb County judge ruled that Neason was a tenant and prevented the shelter from evicting him without going to court. The hostel has appealed.
“Who do you fire and who is foreclosed if no one pays?” Roy Barnes asked. “This is not a problem that is all good on the one hand and bad on the other.”