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Motel crackdown meant to target crime, not families, Gwinnett city says

Kathleen Allen stood in the cold outside Crossland Atlanta hotel Tuesday morning holding a bright yellow sign. 

“Fight crime,” it said, “not families.”

Her target was a recently approved change to the city of Norcross’ hotel and motel ordinance, one that city officials say aims to do just what Allen’s sign asked. One out of every three “major” crimes in the city happens at one of its 14 hotels, police Chief Bill Grogan says, and the new regulations include measures to help curb that trend. 

What have Allen — and at least one homelessness advocate — concerned, however, are the length-of-stay restrictions that are also involved. While wiggle room for exceptions exists in those guidelines, the fear is that such rules will leave struggling Gwinnett families, who often have nowhere else to turn, out in the cold.

“This new ordinance will cause a lot of hardship for a lot of families, as well as individuals,” said Chuck Ferraro, executive director of nonprofit group Family Promise of Gwinnett, which helps the county’s homeless residents.

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Exact, Norcross-centric numbers are hard to come by, but a Gwinnett County Public Schools spokeswoman said Tuesday that the district currently has more than 1,100 homeless students. Many of those live in extended stays across the county.

“I don’t want those children to go homeless because of a dual-purpose ordinance that has bigger unintended effects,” Allen said. 

The amended ordinance was approved by Norcross’ city council earlier this month and enforcement will start sometime in the first quarter of 2017. 

The majority of the new regulations — believed to be the first of their kind adopted in Gwinnett County but, according to Norcross, commonplace around the country — are targeted directly at preventing crime. They include requirements for things like functional video surveillance systems, adequate lighting and stricter vehicle rules. 

Hotels will also be required to collect more detailed identification information from renters.

“Anonymity is a criminal’s best friend,” Grogan said. 

Motel 6 at 5395 Peachtree Industrial Boulevard is one of many hotels, motels and extended-stay hotels in Norcross now under new ordinances to improve safety. (Courtesy of Motel 6 for the AJC)

At issue, however, are tenancy rules that prevent the city’s “regular” hotels from allowing anyone to stay for more than 15 consecutive days, or for more than 60 days in a six-month period. The rules also bar anyone from living in explicitly labeled “extended stay motels” for more than 30 consecutive days during a six-month period.

The ordinance does, however, include language that officials say will allow for much-needed exceptions.

Families dealing with crisis situations, such as house fires, can get 90-day extensions when hotels and motels contract with government agencies, insurance companies or charities to house them. Similar 90-day extensions are also available “to prevent patrons and their guests from becoming homeless,” if approved by the city’s community development director.

Extended stay families with children in local schools can also get extensions by presenting documentation to the city, Grogan said, and multiple extensions can be granted if the situation fits.

The city of Norcross issued a lengthy statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday, backing up Grogan’s assertions and saying, in part, that it “understands that extenuating circumstances exist where people and families need a place to stay for longer periods of time.”

Allen, who describes herself only as a “concerned citizen,” said she can get behind the crime-reducing efforts and, in fact, thinks they should be expanded. She remains worried, however, by the tenancy regulations and the possibility of them being “selectively enforced” — the chance of officials granting exceptions to some families and not to others.

Grogan said that won’t be an issue.

The only target, he said, is those people responsible for the more than 5,800 calls his department has responded to at local hotels and motels over the last two years, and specifically the ones tied to the aforementioned “major” crimes: shootings, armed robberies, rapes, sex trafficking and drug transactions.

“The intention here is if you are a family, and you’ve got kids in our schools, that’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s really a good thing. That’s what we want. But would you not, as a family, want a safe place to live?”

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