Working families resort to hotels for homes

High rents across the Atlanta region or prior evictions push apartments out of reach

During the holiday season, thousands of families across Atlanta squeezed into hotel rooms as they marked the special days. Kids crowded together on beds. Parents made do with mini-fridges and microwaves.

But the time in the cramped quarters wasn’t part of a family vacation or a visit with grandparents. It was simply another day and night at what’s become a home. With rents and fees sharply rising for apartments and leases hard to get for anyone with a prior eviction, a growing number of working families find themselves spending months, or even years, in extended-stay hotels.

“Families are getting stuck there,” said Protip Biswas, vice president for homelessness at United Way of Greater Atlanta.

The adults hold down jobs to pay $1,200 to $1,400 or much more every month to keep their hotel housing, but struggle to save enough to cover an apartment lease. Biswas said one elementary school principal in DeKalb County recently told him that 37 kids at just that one school were living in nearby extended-stay hotels. School buses routinely drop off kids at hotels across metro Atlanta. But living in an extended-stay hotel can be traumatic, he said.

“The activities that happen — the drugs, the other nefarious activities — it’s not a safe place for children,” Biswas said. “These parents are trying to make it. It’s really a heartbreaking story.”

No one knows for sure how many families across the region are living in extended-stay hotels. United Way of Metro Atlanta gets 3,000 to 4,000 calls a year from families seeking help to get out of hotels.

A researcher at Georgia State University estimates that thousands more are living this way. “It’s safe to say at least 25,000 people probably are living in hotel rooms across metro Atlanta, if not considerably more,” said Taylor Shelton, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences who studied the issue.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Raneice and Melvin White have resorted to staying in hotels for several years. After going through the tragic death of a child in 2017, the family moved from their apartment to a house through a sublease. But the owner decided to sell, and the family has struggled ever since to find a house or apartment. They have lived in a series of hotels and relied on family members for shelter for part of the time.

For now, the couple and five children between the ages of 5 months and 13 are making do at an extended-stay hotel not far from the Atlanta airport. It feels safe compared to other hotels, Raneice said, and they have a small stove along with a microwave, air fryer, full-size refrigerator and kitchen sink. They have paid between $600 and even $1,000 a week for hotels in the past. But now, they have a secure home in a hotel that costs $1,200 a month, which they can cover through her husband’s restaurant job. But for a large family, it’s cramped.

“I haven’t been down all my life,” Raneice said. “I know what it’s like to live and do what you want to do.”

She said she hopes that next year the family will find an apartment. “I pray every night just to experience that again, just having a home, a bigger space,” Raneice said. Both Raneice and Melvin are gregarious and deeply religious. They both have faith that something better is coming for them if they focus on what matters — working hard and taking care of their children. “I think God blesses us and gets us by,” Melvin said. “If we take care of the kids, God will take care of us.”

Mckenzie, their 10-year-old daughter, loves art and has a drawer filled with her drawings. The boys like sports and video games. All the children dote on their baby sister, Justice.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Apartments that Raneice has seen that are affordable are places she knows are overrun with crime. “They want $1,400 to $1,500 for a two-bedroom that’s not suitable,” she said.

Plus, the cost to get into an apartment is overwhelming for most families working paycheck to paycheck. Anyone with poor credit, prior evictions or a criminal history is routinely rejected. But landlords keep application fees that run from $75 to $150. That makes it risky to even apply for an apartment if applicants lose more than $100 for an application fee and then run short of money for groceries.

Raneice said she focuses for now on making do at the hotel. They’ve seen people much worse off, she said, who are forced onto the street. “It’s just all about surviving,” she said.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Another hotel tried to evict the family during the pandemic, but the Atlanta Legal Aid Society was able to argue that the family had tenants’ rights. Legal Aid has so far prevailed in a lawsuit on behalf of long-time residents of an extended-stay hotel who were put out without a formal eviction process. Efficiency Lodge has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

It’s a critical issue in Georgia, where landlord-friendly laws push more and more families into hotels, especially those with poor credit, prior evictions or a criminal record. “For a lot of people, it’s that or homelessness,” said Lindsey Siegel, Legal Aid’s director of housing advocacy. It’s critical for the safety of families and the community that landlords follow the proper process, she said, before someone can be evicted.

When families do lose housing, homeless shelters are often full, especially ones that take families, said Biswas, of the United Way. Some families live three weeks in a hotel, then one week in their car when they run out of money, and then go back into a hotel when they get paid, he said.

United Way is working on a program with other charitable organizations to help families who are living in hotels gain stable housing.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.