In the six weeks since medical experts and political leaders suggested we keep our hands washed and practice social distancing to ward off COVID-19, we’ve heard a lot about getting back to normal.
That might mean happier, more peaceful days for the majority of us, but for tens of thousands of others, normal won’t look like much.
If that leaves you puzzled, consider for a moment the thousands of families who live in extended-stay hotels across metro Atlanta. There’s nothing normal about calling a hotel room home. Hotels are meant for temporary stays, where we lay our burdens down, take a break from, well, life.
The irony that people could be kicked out of their motel room in the midst of a deadly pandemic is potent.
We don’t know how many people actually live in these inns, but social service agencies estimate that somewhere around 30,000 working families in metro Atlanta live in hotels. Let me remind you that the vast majority of these families include children.
That’s shameful on a whole lot of levels, but it gets even worse. Increasing numbers of these families are now receiving eviction notices.
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In just the last 30 days, 60 people have found their way to Atlanta Legal Aid seeking help. In normal times, they number about two per month, according to Rachel Lazarus, managing attorney at the Gwinnett County office.
“These are the people who actually reach out to us,” she said. “There are many more who don’t.”
Among the families who have, she said, were a man and his younger brother who had lived in a property for seven months, and had never been late on rent. He was supposed to start training for a job he could do remotely when he got behind. The manager gave him and his brother 30 minutes to get out.
Even if your home is a small room, it’s tough to pack everything up in 30 minutes. They left, not knowing if they’ll ever get the things they left behind.
In another instance, a family of eight, no longer able to make rent on the three rooms they needed, was forced to cram into just one.
“These extended-stay properties are operating under the innkeeper’s law that lets hotels immediately kick out anyone who doesn’t pay, but that’s not how these extended stays work,” Lazarus said. “These are modern-day tenement houses.”
Until recently, most people assumed that residents in these hotels had no rights because of innkeeper laws.
Two things changed that thinking — a longstanding Georgia case that said people living in hotels can be tenants, and a state law that defined inns as properties that pay sales and occupancy taxes. Under Georgia law, extended-stay hotels don’t pay those taxes for residents after 90 days.
“If they don’t pay those taxes, they’re not innkeepers, and if they’re not innkeepers, they should follow the same rules as any other landlord,” Lazarus said.
That means people who rent a hotel room as their primary residence have the same tenancy rights as those who have a lease for an apartment or house, so hotel owners can’t legally evict anyone without due process.
When they do, Lazarus said her office will sue.
“When the virus hit, people who were making it week to week were suddenly furloughed or laid off,” she said. “They knew they’d be getting income eventually, but hotels didn’t want to wait for people to get money. The courts were closed, so having an eviction hearing wasn’t even possible. Someone in a traditional landlord-tenant relationship could catch up, but people in hotels risked being thrown out.”
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In addition to warning hotels against throwing people out without due process, Lazarus said that her office has also been busy notifying local police departments that hotel residents aren’t trespassers.
“It’s not that cut and dry,” she said.
Page Olson, who owns Café Intermezzo with her husband, Brian, was shocked when she learned one of her employees had been threatened with eviction.
“He called terrified he was going to be on the street,” she said.
Like so many other business owners, the Olsons were forced to furlough their employees on March 17. When they learned one of their cooks lived in an extended-stay hotel and was facing eviction, Page Olson, who once volunteered in the office of then-state Rep. Tom Taylor, called the state attorney general's office and urged officials to take a page from North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein's handbook.
Stein released a letter in early April stating that people staying in hotels and motels as their primary residence are considered tenants and cannot be removed without a court order.
By April 21, Olson said, the Georgia Department of Law's Consumer Protection Division had posted a similar notice on its website.
“In seven business days, the lawyers had vetted the issue, drafted language reflective of Georgia law, and posted it for quick access to make long-term renters aware of their rights,” she said.
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Thanks to an anonymous donor, Olson’s cook and his family can remain where they are for now. With any luck, he has received his stimulus check and can pay his rent.
But Olson and Lazarus are concerned there could be thousands of others out there who still can’t pay their rent and who don’t know their rights.
“My goal is to get the word out to citizens and organizations to make people in this situation aware of their right to due process because this will only get worse,” Olson said. “As we both know, long-term housing at extended stays, especially during this pandemic, may very well be the last safety net before homelessness.”
Until these residents are able to get their ducks in a row like the rest of us, Atlanta Legal Aid will be working to help them keep their housing.
When you’re essentially homeless, that might mean it’s twice as hard and may take twice as long.
“It’s important to understand that nobody is claiming they shouldn’t have to pay their rent,” Lazarus said. “All we’re asking is they be given some leeway because they are in this situation through no fault of their own.”
So what should those who find themselves in this situation do?
If they live in metro Atlanta, call Atlanta Legal Aid (404-524-5811). If they live outside the area, call Georgia Legal Services (1-833-457-7529). They can also apply online for help at atlantalegalaid.org or glsp.org.
The websites also offer a long list of COVID-19 resources, such as information about applying for unemployment, expanded food stamp aid and medical care, and how to find food pantries until we get back to normal.
That isn’t in the cards for a lot of people because, no matter how you look at it, calling a motel room home isn’t normal.
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution