For thousands of people who get evicted in metro Atlanta, a motel has often been the last chance to avoid a homeless shelter or life on the street.
But with many “extended stay” motels nearing capacity, there might not be enough room for tenants who lose their apartments when the federal moratorium on evictions comes to an end.
“I don’t see how that is not the case,” said Jennifer Yankulova, managing attorney for Legal Aid Atlanta in Cobb County. “And it was already hard to find housing here.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a new ban on rent evictions on Aug. 3, days after a previous, pandemic-triggered ban had expired. The new ban coincided with a new surge in COVID-19 cases that represents a rising public health risk.
The CDC action faces a concerted legal challenge from landlord groups. Even if the moratorium survives in the courts, it expires in early October. Meanwhile, much of the money the federal government appropriated to pay rents still has not been distributed.
Metro Atlanta has 15,032 extended stay rooms, which are meant for longer-term guests and typically have some kitchen features, said Mark Skinner, a partner at the Atlanta-based Highland Group, which tracks the industry.
Meanwhile, about 20% of the state’s renters are behind on rent, according to the Census Bureau. In metro Atlanta, that would translate to about 208,000 of the 1.04 million renter households.
Only about a third of the metro area’s extended stay rooms are “economy” units, typically charging between $300 and $500 per week. Motels or hotels that charge daily instead of weekly or monthly typically cost more.
All occupancy plummeted during the pandemic but extended stays — especially the more affordable options — still had many more guests than average, Skinner said. Occupancy of the economy tier last year was 79.5%, compared with 48% occupancy for all motels and hotels.
If there is a wave of new evictions, “it is possible that in certain areas, the economy extended stay accommodations will be full,” he added.
If evicted, many tenants cannot simply find another apartment, even if they have enough income to pay rent. Landlords typically reject applicants with an eviction on their record. They also often want a security deposit paid up front along with the first month’s rent.
In contrast, a motel just needs a customer to pay for the room, no questions asked.
“We don’t do background checks. We just let them check in,” said the manager of an extended stay motel on the north side of metro Atlanta. He asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter.
The manager said motels have been filling the past few months. “We had about 72% occupancy in late winter. Now, I’m overbooked.”
About 3,200 people are homeless in the city of Atlanta, living on the street or in various shelters. The metro area has roughly 3,020 beds for the homeless, and about two-thirds are occupied, according to Partners for Home, a non-profit agency that manages Atlanta’s handling of the issue. United Way estimates it as closer to three-quarters.
Motels have become a key shock absorber for turmoil in the housing market, a way for families to avoid homelessness while trying to get back into an apartment, said Denise Fisher, vice chair of the board for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a statewide charity that works with low-income families.
“It’s become the housing of last resort,” she said. “And these are working families, adults with full-time jobs.”
St. Vincent operates Motel to Home, a program aimed at moving families into stable housing, finding landlords who will accept renters with a checkered history.
Tracye Neal has been in and out of extended stay motels three times.
“I was evicted from my home because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, and at first it wasn’t bad,” she said. “But I was paying more than I would pay for an apartment. It is a trap.”
She was working as a customer service rep for a cable company, but she had the expense of three children — two in college — and had trouble managing her money. Then she had health problems.
Her son picked up an information packet from Motels to Home and she filled it out that night. The program included courses in financial planning and help finding a landlord who would rent to someone with evictions on her record.
She now rents a two-bedroom, $1,050-a-month townhouse in Norcross and is starting a new job.
But occupancy is also very high in apartments, where supply has not kept up with demand. Last month’s average rent in metro Atlanta was 17% higher than the year before, according to RealPage, a data provider.
Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
As a business model, extended stays were originally aimed at business travelers — consultants, salespersons, executives. And they are still customers. But over the years, more and more rooms have been taken by local residents who have lost or left their homes.
It is not necessarily a cheap choice.
The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in metro Atlanta is just over $2,000, according to Zumper, an online rental listing service.
Extended Stay America, the nation’s second-largest chain of extended stay motels, has 23 locations in metro Atlanta. It charges between $1,800 and $2,700 a month for rooms booked in advance online.
Motels can also be a somewhat precarious option.
A tenant can generally be evicted in a matter of a few weeks, but a motel can toss a guest a lot quicker than that, said Protip Biswas, vice president for homelessness at the United Way of Greater Atlanta. “They can get locked out in one minute. It’s just a keystroke at the front desk.”
But when there are no other options, a motel looks good.
April Bryant, 40, hit hard times in recent years with virtually no savings to fall back on.
“I was in and out of women’s shelters,” she said. “My car had broken down and I couldn’t get to work, so I lost my job. I’ve had an eviction filed and they see it on the record and nobody wants to rent to you.”
She has been living in a Duluth extended stay motel since the start of the pandemic. She paid $500 a week for her first month and then $340 weekly after that — about $1,400 a month.
“For me, it’s been a lifesaver,” said Bryant, who is working as a public school custodian.
With choices scarce, it would be better if the moratorium, rental assistance and an improving economy could keep people in their homes, said Lejla Prljaca, executive director of the Lawrenceville Housing Authority.
“There needs to be a focus on prevention,” she said. “We know how badly an eviction affects the ability to find housing.”
Extended stay, Atlanta
14.4% of all hotel and motel rooms
Fourth-most of any metro U.S. metro area
Economy rooms: 5,399 (35.9%)
Mid-price rooms; 5,504 (36.6%)
Upscale rooms: 4,129 (27.5%)
Source: The Highland Group