Ex-governor responds to lawsuit, complaints against brother’s motel chain

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes is defending the extended stay motel chain his brother owns against a lawsuit from renters and complaints of unsafe conditions.

Barnes and his brother Ray, who once co-owned Efficiency Lodge, Inc., have been the target of furor from local housing activists who say the company is unfairly and unjustly kicking out over a dozen families at the south DeKalb County location who are behind on rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

A lawsuit was recently filed by three current and former residents with the backing of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. It argues long-term renters face aggressive threats from management and should have the same rights as tenants in apartments or houses.

The former governor’s law firm is representing the company in the suit. In an interview Thursday, Barnes pushed back on the claims in the lawsuit and said the business had no choice but to lock out renters who were behind on their payments. Armed security, Barnes said, was necessary to deal with complaints about crime.

“They did tell folks, as anybody that operates under the innkeeper act, you don’t have to have an eviction,” he said. “You lock them out.”

Barnes also clarified his role with the company. While he was once a co-owner of the Efficiency Lodge chain, which has over a dozen locations in Georgia and Florida, he said he sold all of his interest in the company many years ago. His brother remains the majority owner.

Legal Aid argues that people who have lived in a motel for over three months have the same rights as renters in apartments, because the law eliminates the occupancy tax after 90 consecutive days. Once the motel is not paying that tax, those people are no longer guests, they are tenants, Siegel said. That would mean the motel must go to court to file a formal eviction notice., though Barnes said “nothing in the law” explicitly supports that interpretation.

Barnes said the business had no choice but to enforce its rules.

“Which employees should be laid off because people say, ‘I’m just not gonna pay during this time?'” Barnes said.

Several of the residents forced to move out of Efficiency Lodge’s DeKalb location said they had fallen behind on rent payments because of the pandemic and were making efforts to catch up.

The company also received a $150,000 to $350,000 loan from the federal government through the COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program.

Residents have also complained about maintenance issues at the property. An online petition lists broken electrical wiring, mold and infestations, and expresses concern about armed security guards on the premises.

Barnes said he hadn’t heard about those issues from management, but he said “illegal activity” at the motel let them to hire extra security. He said the company didn’t have similar issues at other locations.

“We had all kinds of complaints down there,” he said. "The company cannot allow the business to be taken over.