Bill clarifying protections for people who live in motels spurs protest from housing groups

Bill clarifying protections for people who live in motels spurs protest from housing groups
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Leegraciea Lewis had nowhere to go the day sheriff’s deputies arrived to evict her from her home in Steele Creek in September.

So in the midst of a global pandemic and an eviction moratorium, she checked into an Extended Stay America. Eight months later, she’s still living in a hotel room, unable to find an apartment because of the eviction on her record.

What’s happening: Now North Carolina lawmakers are advancing a bill that would classify those staying in hotels for less than 90 days as guests. That means they are not covered by tenant-landlord laws, and hotels do not need to go to court to throw them out.

  • After those 90 days, an individual will be considered a tenant, state Rep. John Bradford, III, a Republican representing northern Mecklenburg County, tells me. Bradford is a sponsor of the bill.

Bradford and others who support the proposal, including the hotel industry lobby in Charlotte, say that hotels need to be able to remove someone if they violate their contract, such as by not paying rent or committing crimes.

“Hotel operators are not landlords,” Bradford said. 

Yes, but: It has spurred protests from housing advocates who fear it will make it easier for hotel owners to kick out people living there without any recourse.

  • That could lead to an increase in the homeless population, they say.
  • This change is sweeping, and it will affect thousands of people, who will be subject to being homeless on almost no notice for no reason, with no judicial process,” said Kenneth Schorr, executive director of the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.

The big picture: Charlotte’s affordability crisis has driven many who can’t find housing to stay in hotels and motels. And as COVID-19 wreaked economic devastation on families, the issue only worsened.

  • Both sides agree that hotels are not a permanent solution to the city’s affordable housing shortage. But it’s become a bandaid for the problem, to prevent people from having to live on the street.

There’s a dispute over how to interpret current laws governing the rights of people living in motels.

On one side: The North Carolina Department of Justice in April 2020 sent letters to nearly 100 hotels and motels after hearing that they were threatening to evict residents, according to a press release.

  • Citing a 1991 case North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling, the letter said landlord-tenant laws cover some individuals whose primary residence is a hotel or motel.
  • Many North Carolinians are facing job loss and financial burdens and struggling to make ends meet because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Attorney General Josh Stein said at the time. “It’s more important than ever that businesses follow the law, do the right thing, and prevent additional harm to consumers.”
  • In a statement to Axios, DOJ spokeswoman Nazneen Ahmed said Stein’s office is concerned about the legislation erasing protections for people living in motels, and that they hope lawmakers can come to a compromise.

On the other: Bradford and the bill’s supporters disagree with Stein and advocates. Bradford says that because hotels stop collecting occupancy tax after 90 days, that’s when guests become tenants.

  • He said the DOJ’s letters made it difficult for hotel owners to remove bad actors.
  • “Hoteliers are taking on risk to put people in their hotels for a few nights, before the first 90 days, and this idea that now they have to basically keep them because of this opinion from this attorney general is completely against what any of them ever expected,” he said.

Floyd Davis, president and CEO of affordable housing group Community Link, said his organization helps relocate people into hotels. 

  • Many people they work with who stay in hotels have previous evictions, bad credit history or other challenges that are barriers to obtaining permanent housing.
  • He believes the bill will exacerbate homelessness, at a time when facilities and shelters are at capacity. “Where are they going to go? Back on the street.” 

Mohammad Jenatian, president of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, said hotel owners have had an issue with people checking in for a few days, and refusing to pay the rent after that. 

  • He said hotels offer a service to people who can’t afford housing in Charlotte. But he said the inability to remove guests who don’t pay rent or commit crimes has made many hotels raise their prices.
  • “Hotels have been burned so much and have been left with thousands and thousands of dollars that they could never get their money back,” he said.

What’s next: The legislation passed the North Carolina House of Representatives in April, and is slated to come to a vote before the state Senate next.

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