Living in a motel isn’t glamorous; it’s a sign that things must change

Rimbey Schroeder shares a moment with the youngest of her three daughters in their room at a Motel 6 in Norcross. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM

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Rimbey Schroeder shares a moment with the youngest of her three daughters in their room at a Motel 6 in Norcross. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM

Rimbey and Jason Schroeder’s three daughters were still sleeping when I arrived one Friday late last month for a visit at a Motel 6 just off Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.

The curtains are drawn, so it is a dark space with clothing strewn throughout and last night’s dinner dishes and various sundries cluttering a sink at the entry. It doesn’t look like much, but they are together and they are home.

For Rimbey Schroeder, that means everything.

“As long as we can keep our family together and a roof over our heads, I’m OK with that,” Schroeder said. “I thank God every day.”

The Schroeders moved into the Motel 6 last August, after being evicted from a California apartment they could no longer afford. The couple, their three daughters, ages 4, 8 and 17, and three dogs live in a ground floor unit that looks to be around 450 square feet between the bedroom, the bathroom and the closet. When it’s time to go to sleep, they share two full-size beds: Rimbey and two of the girls on one; Jason and another on the other.

Her husband away at work, Rimbey told me that soon after the family was evicted, Jason Schroeder learned JTech, a subsidiary of HM Electronics, the company he worked for, had an opening here and decided to take it.

In May 2018, they packed up everything they had and moved to Norcross. After living paycheck to paycheck and from hotel to hotel, anything had to be better. Only it wasn’t.

When they arrived days later, the rental property the Schroeders had secured in Suwanee was no longer available. It was already rented to another family who were willing to pay more.

They had no other choice but to settle down in their 2012 Kia Sorento, where they remained until August, when Jason got his first paycheck and enough to move into this Motel 6.

RELATED: Norcross study reveals who is living in extended-stay motels and why

Actually all over Norcross and the country, budget motels like this serve as semipermanent residences for thousands of families too poor or too financially unstable to afford regular rental units or get a decent apartment because there is so little affordable housing stock in the United States.

According to a 2017 study by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of people living in poverty has increased most in suburban and exurban communities. In fact, the study showed that in metro Atlanta, the number of low-density, high-poverty exurban tracts rose from only 11 in 2000 to 72 in 2015.

Compounding the growing poverty rates is that home prices have continued to go up even as wages have remained stagnant. Since 2011, the rate of home price increases has been about 20 percentage points higher than the rate of wage increases, according to March 2019 data from the Atlanta Regional Commission. In metro Atlanta, 56% of homebuyers have incomes below $100,000, and fewer starter homes are being built, meaning that home ownership is becoming out of reach for lower-income households.

The Schroeders came to my attention after a group of Norcross affordable housing advocates released survey results showing that many hardworking families and elderly individuals on a fixed income are living in extended-stay motels located within the city limits.

I wish I could say that surprised me, but I can’t. The Schroeders aren’t the first family I’ve met who made their homes in hotel rooms. Given their numbers, they probably aren’t the last, but make no mistake, we should be doing all we can to lift them out of the mire, including providing financial help to cover move-in costs like deposits and converting extended stays into permanent housing.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The study was conducted last fall by LiveNorcross, a local program of the statewide Georgia Initiative for Community Housing that is supported by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, the Georgia Municipal Association and the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

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What was interesting about the study’s findings, based on a survey of residents from nine extended-stay motels, was who lives in these establishments and the barriers they face to finding permanent housing.

• 84% of respondents indicated that the extended-stay motel is their place of residence, and they are for the most part local Gwinnett families.

• These residents have jobs, but they are struggling financially.

• The main reason they can’t get out is because they can’t afford the upfront financial obligations they must fulfill to move into a rental unit.

• 29% of the residents living in extended-stay hotels are ages 55 and up.

Right now, the Schroeders are stable.

“It’s not the most ideal situation, but we have a roof over our heads,” Rimbey said. “We’re able to take care of the rent.”

Rent is $640 every two weeks, but even in an overheated real estate market like metro Atlanta, it is by no means cheap. Imagine then trying to save up enough cash for first and last month rent plus a security deposit on a regular apartment. Imagine having to pay for a credit check or producing a bank statement and references.

With a bankruptcy filing in their history and two civil suits from their evictions, rent applications for the Schroeders were an automatic denial.

“Right now, I don’t see us getting out of this situation,” Rimbey said as her daughters began to rise from their slumber. “Here it is difficult to save money. It’s what we call the hotel trap. You’re stable but stuck. There’s no way we can save up three months’ rent. We’re paying $1,280 a month. We can’t use the hotel as a rental reference, and since we don’t have good rental history, we’re stuck that way, too.”

There are days, Rimbey said, when she is absolutely frustrated and others when she feels nothing but hope. She hopes people will stop seeing numbers, for instance, when looking at people living in poverty.

Numbers don’t tell stories, she said, and she’s right. With numbers, it’s easy to assume people are drug addicts, irresponsible, or unwilling to seek something better. It might never enter your mind they are people just down on their luck.

“If someone would’ve told me that we would be in Georgia living in a hotel, I would’ve told them they were nuts,” Rimbey said, laughing. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re in Georgia. It’s a lot cheaper than California. The environment is better. The schools are absolutely wonderful. It’s just that right now I feel stuck, but I’m hopeful we’ll find something.”

I hope they will, too.

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