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Finding Home: Long-Term Hotel Residents Face Eviction Threats

Angelina Freiert and her family live at the InTown Suites in Matthews.
David Boraks
Angelina Freiert and her family live at the InTown Suites in Matthews.

Long-term residents of hotels and motels who have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic face a weekly struggle to pay the rent. Hotel managers who want their money are using a variety of tactics to try and collect.  Attorney General Josh Stein warns some of those may be illegal.

Finding Home

Some long-term residents at the InTown Suites hotel in Matthews say the manager locked them out of their rooms one night last week in a dispute over unpaid rent. Angelina Freiert says it happened when she was out at the store.  

"When me and my wife got home, we tried to go in our room and our key kept turning red," she said. "So then the maintenance man was like, 'Oh, they're telling us we're not allowed to open nobody's door for us.' Basically, they went in peoples' rooms, without nobody there, removed everybody's TV." 

Freiert says she was behind on the $300 weekly rent, after losing her job at the pancake restaurant across the parking lot when it closed. The manager let them back in after they gave him all the cash they had -- about $40. 

InTown Suites tells another story. A spokesman says three rooms were temporarily locked so police could investigate an unspecified incident. Matthews police chief Clark Pennington says the manager did call police to report possible drug activity. But he says his officers are well-versed in state eviction laws and told the manager they couldn't get involved in a landlord-tenant dispute, which is a civil matter. 

Freiert says it wasn't the first incident like this. She says at other times the hotel has turned off electricity and Wi-Fi, and once shut off the water for 12 hours.

“And they’re still trying to harass people to pay when they know they don't have no income,” she said. 

In another recent case, the Days Inn on East Woodlawn Road in Charlotte cut off water and electricity to long-term residents in an attempt to get them to leave. The hotel manager said they were shutting down after the staff refused to keep working during the COVID-19 outbreak. As of Friday, residents were still living there, without housekeeping and other services. 

State courts are closed until at least June 1 because of the COVID-19 outbreak, which means evictions are on hold.  

Jessica Moreno, tenant organizer for ActionNC
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Jessica Moreno, tenant organizer for ActionNC

Jessica Moreno is a tenant organizer with ActionNC who has been working with tenants at the two hotels who have faced eviction threats. She worries we could see a wave of evictions after June 1.

“These are tactics that are already being used by some in the industry," she said. "I won't blanket them all, but we're hearing a lot more of it. And we're going to keep hearing a lot more, especially after the moratorium is lifted.”

Hotels Get Warnings

The two hotels are among more than 100 hotels in the Charlotte area that got warning letters about illegal evictions from North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein on April 3.

Stein said Friday that people who live in hotels or motels can have the same rights as other tenants under North Carolina law.

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein
N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein

“There's a court case on this that said people staying in hotels can be tenants for the purposes of landlord tenant law," he said. "It's a fact-specific analysis and the court asks a number of questions to make that determination.

“If you go to a hotel for a weekend, you haven't become a tenant there for purposes of landlord-tenant law," he continued. "But if you've been living there for some time -- if you get your mail there, if your children are enrolled in school using the hotel as the address -- there are various factors that the courts will look to to determine whether you've become a long term tenant.”

So hotel managers can't just lock the doors or shut off the lights -- they need a court order to evict long-term tenants legally.

“We've heard from some tenants where they've been threatened with eviction or changing the lock, where they have been long-term tenants," Stein said. "And that's obviously a concern.”

But Stein said complaints are flowing both ways right now. 

“We've also gotten some complaints from hotel owners where people who are not long-term tenants are trying to claim tenancy and argue that they don't have to pay their bills,” he said.  

More than 960,000 North Carolinians filed unemployment claims between March 15 and April 30 -- most of those related to the pandemic. With May rent payments of all kinds now due, Stein is urging landlords and tenants to act responsibly. 

“What we ask is for landlords to work with their tenants, try to come up with payment plans so that folks aren't dispossessed of their property when the courts open back up,” Stein said. “But similarly we ask tenants who have the means, obviously keep paying your rent. That enables the landlords to work with your neighbors who are in real financial distress.”

Aid Programs Fill The Gap

Local aid programs are trying to help avoid financial disaster for residents -- and the hotels. Charlotte's Crisis Assistance Ministry spent more than $690,000 in April to pay weekly rents for 1,200 families in 50 hotels, said the agency's Liana Humphrey. 

“We've known all along that there are thousands of families here in Charlotte who call hotels and motels home,” she said. “The urgency that came to the surface was initially when the courts closed, it wasn't at the time clear to hotel residents or to hotels that that order also applied to individuals for whom a hotel is their primary residence.”

Most of the money came from the organization’s own private donors. About $73,000 came from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg COVID-19 Response Fund, set up in March by the Foundation for the Carolinas and the United Way of Central Carolinas. Crisis Assistance originally got a $600,000 grant from the fund to help people in hotels. But Humphrey said the organization gave back the rest of the money when it found it could not spend it the way it was intended.  Last week, the Mecklenburg Homeless Services Network took over the job of serving people in hotels, she said.  

A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Angelina Freiert and other residents at the InTown Suites were among those who got help from Crisis Assistance Ministry, though it ran out after a couple of weeks. She hasn't received a federal stimulus payment yet, and says the backlog of applications has kept her from getting unemployment benefits.

But, she said, there's a light ahead -- last week she found a job at another restaurant nearby. She's hoping to start work soon -- and start collecting a paycheck again.   

Meanwhile, over at the Days Inn, residents are in a standoff with the owner. They're working with Legal Aid of North Carolina, which says it's considering a lawsuit. 

InTown Suites Responds

The InTown Suites manager declined to comment last week when approached outside his office. In a statement, the parent company said:  

"InTown Suites is working closely with guests at all locations experiencing unexpected economic hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to make accommodations where we can, including extending grace periods or paying discounted rates. We are also working to balance that effort with our need to continue paying our staff, who are taking extraordinary measures to provide guests with a safe, clean and affordable place to stay, and continue paying our real estate taxes and insurance costs. We will continue to do everything we can for both our guests and our staff until this crisis subsides."  

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.