City sees no room for hotel living

Lawrenceville officials want 45-day limit on stays enforced

Room 146 at the Extended Stay America in Lawrenceville is not a home. That’s because Alicia Harris will not allow it to become one.

The 45-year-old mother of three keeps her clothes in plastic trash bags instead of the only dresser in the room. She keeps the closet-sized kitchenette stocked with frozen waffles, beans and noodles — items that don’t require much preparation. The drawer in the bedside table is stuffed with her 6-year-old son’s medley of action figures, dolls and a jump rope.

A book of local apartment listings sits on top of the table.

“This is not where I want to be,” said Harris, who works at a local drive-through burger joint. “It’s where I’ve got to be.”

Representing fallout from challenging economic times, Harris checked into the hotel last month after a string of misfortune. Troubles at her mother’s home forced her to move. A bad credit report and decade-old drug conviction made it difficult to secure an apartment.

Across Gwinnett County, many share this plight. Single parents, unemployed construction workers and women escaping abusive relationships are some of the people suffering financial hardship who find refuge in dozens of extended-stay hotels. School buses picked up and dropped off 200 students from various hotels during the past school year.

Lawrenceville officials share Harris’ urgency to make her stay a short one, and they’re planning to make sure other hotel guests feel the same.

City Council members recently called for the enforcement of a 14-year-old city ordinance limiting guests to a 45-day stay at the same hotel, with Councilman Tony Powell front and center on this issue. Lawrenceville’s city attorney when the hotel-stay ordinance was adopted in 1997, Powell got involved once more when he noticed a school bus pick up 15 children at the Villa Lodge & Suites.

Powell said residents have voiced concerns to him about criminal activity at the hotels. He said cities have the right to make the distinction between a hotel and a home.

“It needs to be enforced, period,” Powell said. “This is a problem.”

A decade ago, Gwinnett County was considered the nation’s No. 1 market for extended-stay hotels, and officials in the county and in cities such as Duluth issued construction moratoriums on them.

Not everyone agrees hotel ordinances are necessary. Harold Buckley Jr., an attorney representing Extended Stay America, told the Lawrenceville City Council that enforcement of the law was “arbitrary, capricious, and lacks any relation to the public’s health, safety and welfare.”

Said Suzy Bus, helpline director for the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services, “Where are they going to go?”

Many people who turn to extended-stay hotels have lost homes through foreclosure or eviction and lack the credit rating or rental deposits needed to obtain an apartment.

Powell wants his fellow city officials to make enforcement of the 45-day hotel stay ordinance the priority it has never been: Not a single citation has been issued since the law went on the books in 1997.

As for claims the hotels are a magnet for crime, at least one Gwinnett police agency said the hotels do not stand out as problems.

“We have crimes all over the city,” said Capt. Greg Vaughn of the Lawrenceville Police Department. “I wouldn’t necessarily say those are our hottest crime spots.”

Powell has the support of the Lawrenceville Neighborhood Alliance, an influential group of about 80 households that thinks unregulated hotels could continue the drop in local property values.

“It’s a complex problem that’s not easily solvable,” said Beverly Dryden, director of the alliance. “But it just doesn’t seem right to have families stay in one room. They’re not designed for that.”

Initially, operators of extended-stay hotels planned to serve business travelers and vacationing families who needed a room for more than a week. With larger living areas, kitchen facilities and cheaper rates, extended-stays were a more affordable alternative to traditional hotels with mints on pillows.

Financial troubles brought Sumatree Hardison and her son and daughter to Room 102 at the Villa Lodge & Suites. Hardison had health issues that caused her to lose her job as an AT&T customer service representative, followed by her two-bedroom apartment in Norcross. Without a paycheck or health insurance, bills quickly overwhelmed her.

In April, Hardison and her children each packed two suitcases full of clothes and household items, gave the rest of their stuff to neighbors and headed to the Salvation Army before ending up at the hotel. The Norcross Cooperative Ministry paid the family’s weekly hotel rent of $210 three times. The Lawrenceville Co-Op made three $150 rental payments, with Hardison making up the rest after going to work for a cleaning company.

Hardison sleeps in a bed with her daughter; her son bunks on a dingy couch covered with bed sheets. They keep their clothes in suitcases and a small closet near the front door. The faint smell of bleach fills the room because Hardison has been scrubbing down the walls, trying to erase the grime.

“I’ve asked my kids to forgive me,” she said. “I hope they know that I’m doing my best.”

Rooms at local extended-stay hotels generally range from $160 to $250 a week, with those that offer kitchenettes more expensive. Most of the local ones, like the Extended Stay America on Ga. 120 and the Metro Extended Stay on Buford Drive, lack playgrounds, swimming pools or basketball courts. They both sit on major highways in the midst of bustling commercial corridors, adding to the transient feel of the hotels.

Metro Extended Stay shares a parking lot with a bail bonding company.

But regulars at the Villa Lodge & Suites have worked hard to turn the drab, beige-paneled hotel into something that resembles a neighborhood. They hold Bible study twice a week and share in shepherd’s pie and soda, gather around the pool and socialize in the evenings, and those with vehicles drive others to the convenience store or job interviews. The hotel’s atmosphere is far different than it once was.

When she first checked herself in more than a decade ago, Bible study leader Theresa McDaniel said she found herself in the midst of what she called “Sodom and Gomorrah,” and admittedly took an active part.

“Whatever they did, I did,” said McDaniel, 52, declining to elaborate. “That was under old management. But I changed just like the place changed.”

Local limits on hotel stays are unusual. The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia knows of no other county in the state that restricts hotel stays, spokeswoman Beth Brown said. Officials with Decatur, Norcross and Snellville, among others, said they’ve never encountered such an ordinance.

Cobb County is able to restrict hotel stays but Rob Hosack, Community Development director, said the county has imposed a limit only once or twice after it became an option in the 1990s. Fulton is considering whether limits on hotel stays are feasible, officials said.

In May, after her series of hardships, Harris settled on Extended Stay America after comparing rates elsewhere.

Harris agreed to stay for a month at $230 a week. She brought along her youngest son, Blake, and allowed her 20-year-old son, Sterling, and 13-year-old daughter, Zaria, to stay at her mother’s home.

She keeps the room neat and mostly unadorned, with the exception of framed pictures of her children on the air conditioning unit and bed linens from home. Blake gets to sleep on his own Dragonball Z pillow case.

“This was one of the nicest hotels I could think of,” she said.

Other than a 16-month stay in a Georgia state prison for selling cocaine in the late ’90s, Harris and her children had always stayed with her mother. But when two younger brothers moved back home after facing their own economic troubles, the three-bedroom house quickly grew crowded.

She needed one day to move into the Extended Stay America.

There’s not much space in Room 146, which has only one bed, a bedside table, a small cushioned chair with a footstool and a dining table. It’s about the size of her old bedroom. Harris left most of her clothes and other belongings at her mother’s house until she figures out her next move.

She recently found work as a shift manager at a Checkers fast-food restaurant. Harris runs the register, supervises four employees and opens or closes the restaurant depending on the schedule for $10 per hour.

That doesn’t leave much for savings, which is critical if Harris wants to move into her own place. Her application at a local apartment complex was recently denied after her credit report turned up an old unsettled bill. She was especially frustrated that she lost $20 on the application fee.

Other places have told her that her criminal record disqualifies her from consideration. Another complex accepted her application but wanted first and last month’s rent, which totaled $1,050.

Harris was forced to keep looking.

“I keep pressing on,” she said. “I don’t believe God would have me move out of my mom’s house to fail.”