Long-term residents at a Days Inn in Charlotte got water and electricity back Tuesday, after the hotel shut it off in an attempt to force them out. It’s one of about a hundred hotels in the Charlotte area that got warnings this month about illegal evictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Some people who live at the Days Inn on East Woodlawn Road are semi-permanent residents, paying a few hundred dollars a week. They're here in part because they don't qualify for or can't afford other kinds of rental housing. Many are out of work because of business closings following government stay-at-home orders.
When the hotel suddenly decided to shut down this week, Shimica Isaac said she and her family faced homelessness.
“Basically they just tried to force us out … we were threatened that we were gonna be arrested, that they were gonna put handcuffs on us," she said Tuesday. "They turned the lights out and the water last night."
Nobody was arrested, but there were some tense moments as housing activists joined residents at the hotel in a showdown with the manager that someone caught on Facebook Live.
Isaac, her four children and her fiance stayed at the Days Inn anyway Monday night -- without electricity or water -- and they hope to stay there for a while. She said they had been paying their rent on time until recently when both lost their jobs at a bar and restaurant nearby that closed. That could be grounds for eviction, but most state court activities -- including eviction proceedings -- are on hold until at least June 1 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We (are) not trying to do this on purpose," Isaac said. "We can't work right now because of what's going on. My job is gone, my fiance's job is gone until this crisis is over.”
State Warns Against Illegal Evictions
This Days Inn was one of nearly 100 hotels in the Charlotte area that got warnings April 3 from North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. The letters said the state had received complaints that the hotels were threatening to evict people without court orders.
Under North Carolina law, if a hotel or motel is your permanent residence, you're considered a tenant, with all the same protections as anyone renting an apartment or a house, said lawyer Isaac Sturgill of Legal Aid of North Carolina.
“So for those families, any type of eviction other than going through eviction court is what the law calls a 'self-help eviction' -- which means an illegal eviction," Sturgill said, "and that can look like any number of things that can look like cutting off power, cutting off water, deactivating somebody's key.”
Sturgill represents four families at the Days Inn and said he doesn't know how many other families there are in the same situation.
Hotel Manager’s Side
But every story like this has another side. Hotels are struggling with a loss of business and worries about the spreading coronavirus. The Days Inn's general manager said finances weren't a problem. He was at the hotel Tuesday and said the decision to close came when the housekeeping and front-office staff refused to keep working in what they considered unsafe conditions.
“Our employees felt like they don’t feel safe. Everybody has small kids, especially the housekeeping department,” said the man, who did not want to give his name. “They just said they want to take a break and you can call us back when everything is settled down.”
So, he said, “The owner is forced to shut down. … I wish you were here yesterday that you can talk to the employees. 'Cause I tried to convince them. Nobody was ready to stay.”
The manager said he's also out of a job now, along with the rest of the staff.
The Days Inn is part of the Wyndham Hotels family, but independently owned by a Charlotte company. A Wyndham spokesman said in an email that the company is "troubled by how this situation has unfolded" and that all franchise holders must obey the law.
Sheriff Pays A Visit
Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden stopped by the Days Inn at midday Tuesday after residents and county officials called him to express concern about the threatened evictions. He talked with the manager in a parking lot behind the hotel.
“I told him I can't force him to do anything, but I could give him suggestions," McFadden said later. "And the suggestion was: Read the governor's order, read the city's, county's order, and then read the order of Attorney General Josh Stein.”
He also said he suggested the hotel bring in help from another hotel, and warn residents they may have to take care of their own rooms for a few days. His big concern is that tempers might flare again, as they did Monday.
Could This Happen Elsewhere?
With so many hotels around the state facing pressures amid the virus outbreak, Legal Aid's Sturgill said he worries that other owners might take steps similar to what the Days Inn did.
“The concern that we have in the community now is that the longer the eviction courts remain closed, the more temptation there may be for landlords -- including hotels that have tenants living there -- to use an illegal means to try to evict someone,” he said.
At least for now, residents at the Days Inn won't have to leave. Volunteers showed up with food and drinks to support them at lunchtime Tuesday. But with nobody to manage or clean the place, it's not clear how long they'll be able to stay.
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