Excessive residence: People who live in long-term residential hotels are fighting evictions to avoid homelessness

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The private security guard, armed with an assault rifle, moved quickly through the dingy hallways of the long-stay apartment hotel outside of Atlanta on a cold fall day.

He pounded on door after door, aimed the rifle at longtime residents and forced them to leave.

The impressive evictions terrified the people at the Efficiency Lodge in Decatur, Georgia. Many of them are low-income workers and families with young children who had made the lodge their home for years because they had no choice but to live on the streets. Only the emergency efforts of a local church ensured they had beds to sleep on that night in September 2020.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life just to put a person on the street,” one resident, Armetrius Neason, told The Associated Press.

Armetrius Neason poses for a photo in his room at the Efficiency Lodge Hotel outside of Atlanta on March 16, 2021. Neason has lived at the hotel for more than five years, but was told he was late on renting during the pandemic and was could be ruled out immediately. (AP Photo / Sudhin S. Thanawala)

Neason, a carpenter, had lived in the hotel for five years, in a room with a small kitchen that he had lovingly furnished – until the security guard came with the gun.

“Then you had to go,” said Neason.

Neason and two other renters are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society against the hotel owners. Since the residents lived there for months or even years, they should have the same rights as tenants in apartments or houses. Her lawyers argue that the deportations violate laws designed to protect tenants.

Most of the displaced tenants never returned. But Neason and another tenant are living in the hotel again. A Superior Court judge ruled that the law requires them to be tenants and forbade the Efficiency Lodge to quit them without an eviction in court. The hotel owners are appealing the judgment.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, along with the Atlanta-based tenant rights organization Housing Justice League, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, and three academic experts working on housing inequalities, filed a friend-of-the-court amicus letter in August ” a. support the tenants.

“These types of extended-stay hotels can be a source of stable, safe accommodation for people, many of whom are low-income blacks and browns who would otherwise be on the streets,” said Emily Early, senior attorney for the SPLC Economic Justice Project. “From a legal and moral point of view, these are their homes and you have the right to protect them. This type of accommodation should not only offer the same protection that other tenants enjoy, but also provide a safe and comfortable environment for people. “

“You should be treated like tenants”

How the case is ultimately decided can have far-reaching implications. Unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for millions of Americans to keep up with rent.

A state moratorium on evictions for people in financial distress does not apply to hotel guests. Last year, people living in hotels in California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and Virginia reported threatened eviction.

protest

Housing advocates and former residents protest outside the Efficiency Lodge on Flat Shoals Road in Decatur, Georgia on Wednesday, October 7, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Being on government support or living from paycheck to paycheck, many of these people live in low budget weekly rentals. Units come with furniture and some cooking facilities, all for about $ 200 per week.

Many residents living in these units cannot qualify for traditional housing because they may have been recently evicted and adversely affect their credit report. they cannot afford the deposit or the monthly rent; or otherwise unable to qualify due to their rental history.

In many cases, these units are poorly maintained and teeming with cockroaches and other pests. But this type of shelter is often everything that stands between a poor family and homelessness.

Georgia and many other states do not clearly define when hotel guests will become renters. Renters have the legal right to challenge an eviction attempt in front of a judge and continue to live in the units while their cases progress through the court. This legal ambiguity makes long-term tenants of properties like the Efficiency Lodge vulnerable to quick, summary evictions if they cannot pay.

Nevertheless, companies like the Efficiency Lodge benefit from all the advantages of the traditional landlord-tenant relationship – including constant rent payments – and at the same time avoid costs and statutory obligations, such as:

The Efficiency Lodge owns 15 hotels in Georgia and Florida, which it calls motels. But it markets itself on the long-term, weekly rental market as part of its business model. The slogan on the website is “Stay a Nite”. or Stay forever. “The properties have been cited repeatedly for violating health and safety regulations, but continue to lure tenants into their furnished rooms with incentives that do not require credit checks.

“We believe these people made this place their home for an extended period of time and should be treated as renters,” said Lindsey Siegel, director of housing agency for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and part of a legal team representing tenants.

“That’s the address on your driver’s license,” said Siegel. “The school bus picks up one of our customers’ children right in front of the property. The landlord advertises the hotel as a permanent place of residence. Renters have the right to an eviction procedure before they are kicked out. Can this landlord, who has made rental apartments available to our customers, simply throw them out of their houses without a motive, simply force them out of their houses? Or do you have to go to court? “

For Neason and other residents, the legal storm threatens their accommodation.

Neason had lived at the Efficiency Lodge since 2016. It was his only home, and he paid his full $ 204 rent every week. The lease he signed when he moved in did not include a date of departure.

‘Constant threat’

But last year he was injured and was unable to work for six months. In the lawsuit, he claims a former manager of the hotel told him he would not have to pay his full rent during the pandemic. He says he paid what he could but fell behind. First came a reminder that the rent was due. Then the private security guard appeared and brandished the assault rifle.

Lynetrice Preston, one of the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has lived at the Efficiency Lodge since 2018 with her two teenage daughters and her grandson. Preston was taken off her job at a valet parking service in March 2020 due to the pandemic after she lost her unemployment benefit with her rent in arrears.

She’d made smaller payments when she could. And then, one day in September 2020, she was told that she had two days to catch up on her rent or she and the children would be evicted.

“They’ll lock you out,” said Preston The New York Times in December 2020. “Lock your doors if you can’t pay the rent and they won’t let you come back and get your things when you’re not there.”

Preston said that Times After her parents helped her pay some of the overdue rent, she was able to regain access to her home. She is now working in a chicken restaurant while the lawsuit goes to court.

As the residents of Efficiency Lodge seek the simple security of knowing that they will not be thrown out of their homes again in the middle of the night, they represent the struggles of the communities that have the most to lose.

“This definitely hits vulnerable communities hardest,” Siegel said. “This includes poor communities, colored communities, people with disabilities, anyone who is a vulnerable class, anyone who has been evicted in the past so they have this mark on their background.

“As the housing market tightens in places like Atlanta, more and more people are being forced to use this type of housing as a last resort,” Siegel said. “And if they don’t have eviction protection, ask them to live with the constant threat that their landlords could throw them out of their homes onto the street at any time.”

Photo above: The entrance to the Efficiency Lodge in Decatur, Georgia can be seen here on October 7, 2020. Some of the residents, along with members of the Housing Justice League, protested across the street from the hotel in the Atlanta area, alleging that residents are being evicted and that the hotel offers poor quality living conditions. (Image credit: AP / Ron Harris)


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