The private security guard, armed with an assault rifle, quickly moved through the drab hallways of the long-stay residential hotel outside of Atlanta on a chilly fall day.
He knocked on door after door, pointing the gun at longtime residents and forcing them to leave.
The staggering evictions terrified those living at Efficiency Lodge in Decatur, Georgia. Many of them are working low incomes and families with young children who have taken up residence for years because they had no choice but to live on the streets. Only emergency efforts from 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,” resident Armetrius Neason told The Associated Press.
Neason, a carpenter, had lived in the hotel for five years, in a room with a small kitchen that he had carefully decorated – until the security guard came with the gun.
“You had to go then,” Neason said.
Neason and two other tenants are plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against hotel owners by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. The lawsuit argues that because residents have lived there for months or even years, they should have the same rights as tenants of apartments or houses. Their lawyers argue that the evictions violate laws designed to protect tenants.
Most of the tenants who were evicted never returned. But Neason and another tenant are living at the hotel again. A Superior Court judge ruled that they should be considered tenants under the law and prohibited Efficiency Lodge from evicting them without filing an eviction in court. The owners of the hotel are appealing the decision.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, along with the Atlanta-based tenants ‘rights organization, Housing Justice League, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, and three academic experts who study housing inequalities, filed an amicus’ friend de la cour ”in August, accompany the tenants.
“These types of extended stay hotels can provide a source of stable and secure housing for people, many of whom are low-income Blacks and Browns, who would otherwise be on the streets,” said Emily Early, senior supervising lawyer. of the SPLC. Economic justice project. “In terms of law and morality, these are their homes and they have the right to protect them. These types of places should not only extend the same types of protections as other tenants, but absolutely provide a safe and comfortable environment for people to live.
“They should be treated like tenants”
How the case is ultimately decided can have far-reaching implications. Unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for millions of Americans to pay rent.
A federal moratorium on evictions of people in financial difficulty does not apply to hotel guests. Over the past year, people living in hotels in California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and Virginia have said they have been threatened with immediate eviction.
Because they receive government assistance or live paycheck to paycheck, many of these people live in low budget weekly rentals. The units come with furniture and a few cooking facilities, all for around $ 200 per week.
Many residents who live in these units are unable to qualify for a traditional apartment because they may have been recently evicted, leaving a negative mark on their credit report; they cannot afford the security deposit or the monthly rent; or may not be eligible due to their rental history.
In many cases, these units are poorly maintained and teeming with cockroaches and other pests. But this type of housing is often all that stands between a poor family and homelessness.
Georgia and many other states are not clear on when hotel guests become renters. Tenants have the legal right to challenge an eviction attempt before a judge and to continue living in the units while their case progresses through the court system. This legal ambiguity leaves long-term tenants at properties like Efficiency Lodge vulnerable to quick and summary evictions when they can’t pay.
Yet companies like Efficiency Lodge are reaping all the benefits of the traditional landlord-tenant relationship – including regular rent payments – while avoiding its costs and legal obligations, such as maintaining their properties to quality standards. life.
Efficiency Lodge has 15 properties in Georgia and Florida that it calls motels. But it markets itself in the long-term weekly rental market as part of its business model. The slogan of its website is “Stay a Nite Or Stay forever. ”Her properties have been cited repeatedly for violations of health and safety codes, but continue to attract tenants to their furnished rooms with incentives that require no credit checks.
“Our view is that these people have taken up residence in this place for an extended period of time and that they should be treated as tenants,” said Lindsey Siegel, director of housing advocacy at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and member of a team of lawyers. representing tenants.
“It’s the address on their driver’s licenses,” Siegel said. “The school bus picks up one of our clients’ children just outside the property. The owner advertises the hotel as a long term living place. Tenants have the right to an eviction procedure before being evicted. So is this landlord, who provided rental housing to our clients, allowed to evict them from their homes without cause, just to force them out of their homes? Or do they have to go through the courts?
For Neason and other residents, the legal storm threatens their shelter.
Neason had lived at Efficiency Lodge since 2016. It was his only home and he paid his full rent of $ 204 each week. The rental contract he signed when he moved in did not include a departure date.
But last year he was injured and was unable to work for six months. He claims in the lawsuit that a former hotel manager told him he did not have to pay his rent in full during the pandemic. He says he paid what he could, but is late. First came a notice that the rent was due. Then the private security officer introduced himself, brandishing the assault rifle.
Lynetrice Preston, one of the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has been living with her two teenage daughters and grandson at Efficiency Lodge since 2018. Time off from her valet parking job in March 2020 due to the pandemic, Preston started falling behind on his rent after his unemployment benefits ended.
She made smaller payments when she could. And then one day in September 2020, she was told that she had two days to make up her rent or she and the children would be evicted.
“They’ll lock you up,” Preston said. The New York Times in December 2020. “Lock your doors if you can’t pay the rent, and they won’t let you come in and get your things if you’re not there. “
Preston told the Times she was able to regain access to her home after her parents helped her pay part of the overdue rent. She now works at a chicken restaurant while the lawsuit goes to court.
As the residents of Efficiency Lodge seek the simple safety of knowing that they will no longer be evicted from their homes in the middle of the night, they represent the struggles of the communities that have the most to lose.
“It definitely hits vulnerable communities,” Siegel said. “This includes poor communities, communities of color, people with disabilities, anyone from a vulnerable class, anyone who has been deported in the past, so they have that mark in their past. .
“With the housing market in places like Atlanta increasingly tight, more and more people are forced to use this type of housing as a last resort,” said Siegel. “And if they don’t have the protection of the legal eviction process, you ask them to live with the constant threat that their owners can evict them from their homes and put them on the streets at any time.”
Photo above: The entrance to the Efficiency Lodge in Decatur, Ga. Is shown here on October 7, 2020. Some of the residents, as well as members of the Atlanta-area Housing Justice League, staged a protest opposite the hotel, alleging that residents are being unfairly evicted and that the hotel offers unsanitary living conditions. (Credit: AP / Ron Harris)