Hotels

NC Bill would strip tenants’ rights from people living in hotels

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Leegraciea Lewis has been living in a hotel since November after losing her apartment. She struggles to find an affordable and accessible apartment in Charlotte that is close to her doctors.

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Jonteiz Barrier, a resident of Charlotte, sighs deeply as he counts the number of hotels he has lived in.

“I would say about 15,” he said after a pause.

Barrier works as a line cook and drives for DoorDash and Instacart for the extra money. But saving up for a rental security deposit isn’t enough, and past credit issues make it difficult to find housing in a competitive rental market.

For thousands of Charlotteans, this is reality. But a potential change in state law could restrict the rental rights of people living in hotels and motels, alarming housing advocates, who say the bill would remove due process in the courts for people. threatened with dismissal.

The bill would classify people staying in hotels for less than 90 days as “passing occupants” and not as renters, meaning hotel owners could evict people without getting a court-ordered eviction.

The hospitality industry is calling for changes to help weed out people who commit crimes, said North Carolina Representative John Bradford, a Republican from Mecklenburg and one of the bill’s sponsors.

But housing advocates say removing rental rights from people living in hotels removes crucial protections for already vulnerable people struggling to find permanent housing. Those who fall behind on hotel payments could be kicked out of their rooms and lose their belongings immediately, lawyers say, rather than going through eviction court.

The role of hotels and motels as a last resort before homelessness has been highlighted in the pandemic, especially in cities like Charlotte where affordable housing is scarce. This is often one of the few options for people with credit problems, a past criminal history or evictions, or those who cannot afford a substantial upfront fee to rent an apartment.

Currently, there is disagreement over whether North Carolina law requires hotel owners to treat occupants who live there as their primary residence the same as an apartment owner, and to use the court eviction process to evict them.

Jessica Moreno, an organizer for the Tenant Organizing Resource Center, said rental fees for hotel residents were crucial to keeping people housed when COVID-19 hit and left many unable to pay.

“It will take away from people the last chance to fight,” she said.

The rental provisions are part of the larger Regulatory Reform House Bill 366, which passed two Senate committees this week and heads for a full Senate vote.

Renter or guest?

Rental rights for hotels arose at the start of the pandemic, when many people suddenly couldn’t pay. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein informed more than 100 hotels in April 2020, telling them that “the state’s landlord-tenant laws also protect some people who use hotel and motel rooms. as main residence ”.

According to the Attorney General’s guidelines to hotel owners last year, courts consider many factors in determining whether a person is considered a tenant, including length of stay, whether they receive mail there, and how frequency of payments.

This gives people time to find a lawyer or apply for rent assistance, said Juan Hernandez, a lawyer at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. Without it, he said, people could be put on the streets and have their belongings locked up immediately.

“Instead of having to go to court and make sure the tenant follows their due process, the motel owner can just call the police and say, ‘There’s an intruder, he’s been here for two months. I want them taken out, ”Hernandez said.

“Once that protection is no longer there for the people who use it as their primary residence, it will create more homelessness, immediately.”

Representative Bradford said Stein’s advice and the federal moratorium on evictions had “handcuffed” police to stop people destroying property or committing serious crimes on hotel property. At a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, he asked lawmakers to consider a hotelier who has registered someone on his property and whom they suspect of committing sex trafficking.

“You call the police and the police are doing fine, yeah, looks good, but we got this letter from the attorney general that says you have to go through… the tenant-landlord law,” Bradford said. “So good luck kick them out. They must be stuck with these people. It is pure nonsense.

NC Senator Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Mecklenburg, challenged this notion at the meeting.

“If you have a video of sex trafficking happening in a motel and you call the police, they’re not going to give up on any letter from the attorney general. They’re going to get people, ”Jackson said. “And if you hear reports that the police do not take pictures of people who are victims of sex trafficking, give me a call. We will get to the bottom of it.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officials did not respond to questions about whether Chief Johnny Jennings supported the bill or whether the department had been barred from making hotel arrests due to prosecutor’s directives general.

Neither the state nor the federal moratorium on evictions prevents landlords from asking a judge for an eviction if a tenant engages in criminal activity. COVID-19 protections for evictions only apply to tenants who could not pay rent due to loss of income or illness related to the pandemic.

The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association is backing the bill, President and CEO Lynn Minges said, in part because of the way the state revenue department collects sales and occupancy taxes for residents. stays of less than 90 days.

“It brings the necessary clarity in our law for hotels, for customers and for law enforcement,” she said in a statement. “This is the logical line that the invoice draws between a passing guest and a long-time tenant. “

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Leegraciea Lewis has been living in a hotel since November after losing her apartment. She struggles to find an affordable and accessible apartment in Charlotte that is close to her doctors. Jeff Siner [email protected]

Who lives in the hotels?

People living in hotels often struggle to find more stable accommodation and are on the verge of homelessness, experts say. This includes people with financial barriers to housing, as well as recently homeless families fleeing domestic violence or having had to leave their last residence.

Mecklenburg County and partner organizations annually count the number of people living outdoors, homeless in the area, but do not track the number of people living in hotels. More than 1,100 students from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and their younger siblings lived in hotels during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the district.

That doesn’t count single adults and households without school-aged children like Leegraciea Lewis, who was evicted from her nine-year-old flat last year.

Lewis, 52, struggles to find an affordable and accessible apartment near her doctors where she can navigate the scooter she uses after a stroke cripples her on her right side.

Since November, she has been living in a motel near I-77 and Billy Graham Parkway, near a cluster of several motels with frequent long-term residents. She said the weekly rent has fluctuated, at one point around $ 700 a week.

“It’s hard here,” she said.

People living in motels who spoke to the Observer describe a landscape in which it is difficult to clearly separate residents from “long-term” and “short-term” motels. While people may constantly live in motels for months or even years, they may bounce from room to room or place to place because they run out of money or stay with them briefly. friends or family.

Barrier, 33, said he was frustrated at not being able to break out of the motel cycle, where he often pays more monthly than the average rent in Charlotte. It’s hard to save for a security deposit, he said, and apply for places where it is often necessary to earn three times the rent.

Months spent paying for motel rooms meant he wasn’t building a rental history that could be used to show he would be a consistent tenant. He and his girlfriend have made the difficult decision to send their children to live with their families because they want a more stable environment for them than what motels offer.

“Being able to maintain and be consistent so that my kids can finally say, ‘Daddy has a house’? Talk about changing your life, ”he said.

This story was originally published July 1, 2021 10:12 a.m.

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Lauren Lindstrom is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering affordable housing. She previously covered health for The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, where she wrote about the state’s opioid crisis and lead poisoning in children. Lauren is a native of Wisconsin, a graduate of Northwestern University and a member of the Report for America 2019 corps.
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