For the past few months, Stefanie Craft, her five kids and two pets, a cat and a dog, have been camped out in the Economy Inn and Suites in North Charleston, South Carolina. It wasn’t her first choice: Black mold crawling up the walls of their rental house forced her hand.
Still, it’s home, for now, so they’re riding out the pandemic in one room with a “sink-sized kitchen.”
Now Craft, 44, who says she has always paid her $325 weekly motel rent on time, is facing eviction. She lost her job supervising a local car wash when the coronavirus shuttered her city. A local church paid her rent this week, she said, but she’s terrified about what will happen next. The motel’s manager could not be reached for comment about Craft’s case.
“I have no clue what I’m going to do,” Craft told Stateline in a telephone interview. “We have nowhere to go. That’s why we’re here.”
Most renters are protected from eviction by coronavirus emergency orders. But the new rules don't always apply to people who are paying for motel rooms, a major loophole that could affect thousands of families.
The federal eviction moratorium is limited and applies to only certain rentals, such as landlords who have federally backed mortgages. And some states adopted laws before the pandemic that don’t consider motel dwellers tenants — and therefore don’t apply rental protections to them should they lose their jobs.
“The question is, for families who are paying to stay in a motel, are they considered tenants? And if so, under what conditions? And if you have protection, do the motel owners know?” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on the early care and education of homeless children and young adults.
States have reached different conclusions.
This month, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, ordered local motels and hotels to stop threatening to evict tenants during the pandemic.
Hotels have been devastated by the pandemic, said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. Eight out of 10 hotels in the state either were forced to close or are operating at less than 20% capacity, she said, adding that many are sheltering homeless families and individuals.
“We’re clear that it is unlawful for a hotel to evict a guest if that is how they are finding shelter,” Minges said. “They are still responsible for the payment of those rooms,” but those are matters that can be resolved later, she said.
In neighboring South Carolina, however, the state’s April no-eviction order does not apply to people living in motels.
And sometimes states and localities don’t agree. In Michigan, for example, tenant protection laws do not cover motel residents.
But after Kent County, Michigan, motels evicted more than a dozen families and threatened to evict roughly 75 more last month, local officials got involved, said Casey Gordon, who works with homeless students and families for the Kent County Intermediate School District.
County officials, Grand Rapids city administrators and the county public health department told motel owners that they were essential businesses and evicting residents would violate the local eviction moratorium, Gordon said.
But many motels shut down anyway and kicked families out, according to Gordon, and some families ended up in shelters. Others are living in “doubled-up situations,” couch-surfing with friends. Some ended up in other motels.
“It’s getting really difficult,” Gordon said. “Hotels are saying, ‘We can’t continue to provide staffing. People aren’t coming into work.’”
In some places, evictions are happening at the same time that cities, in an effort to protect people who experience chronic homelessness, are commandeering empty motels to house them.
Many federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, consider people to be homeless if they’re living in hotels or motels. But there are no clear statistics tracking this population.
Motel residents are a difficult population to pin down because they live in a motel when they can afford it and when they can’t they often move to their cars or a friend’s couch. Nor are there statistics detailing how many have been evicted either before or during the pandemic.
(The American Hotel and Lodging Association did not respond to Stateline requests for comment.)
In some cities and states, laws haven’t been enough to protect some tenants. In New Orleans, for example, workers at an extended-stay hotel were arrested after police said they tried to evict residents by force despite Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ no-eviction order, according to a report at nola.com.
In California, hotel and motel guests are considered tenants after 30 days of occupancy, which means that they are protected under Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March eviction moratorium. But hotels in Santa Cruz evicted 181 people last month, said Anthony Prince, general counsel for the California Homeless Union, which is helping the families.
The families were relocated to other hotels with help from the union, which is considering suing the hotels, according to Prince.
“We’re seeing widespread evictions against those who have been long-term residents in these motels who can no longer pay the rent,” Prince said. “They can't work. They’re under a shelter-in-place order.”
But Lynn S. Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the California Hotel and Lodging Association, said he was unaware of any evictions or threats of evictions at hotels in the state.
“Quite the contrary,” Mohrfeld told Stateline in an email. “I’m working with the state and multiple county/city agencies to place vulnerable homeless populations in hotels. The industry is stepping up and continues to do so.”
For Tangejula Smith, the clarity around the North Carolina no-eviction order provided her with peace of mind — for now. A former trucker, the 49-year-old has been living on disability since she hurt her back.
For the past few months, she’s had a routine: For three weeks out of every month, she lives in a motel in Charlotte. When she runs out of money, she moves to her car for a week until her next disability check lands.
But then her car broke down, and that meant she had to spend even more money on a motel each month — a total of $1,200, more than her $1,000 monthly disability check.
With the help of a local nonprofit, Crisis Assistance Ministry, Smith, who says she has kidney and cardiopulmonary disease, was able to get her car fixed. And the nonprofit told her that because of the no-eviction order, she can stay put. The motel told her not to fret but just pay what she can without fear of being evicted.
Still, Smith worries.
“This is a bill I’m accumulating,” Smith said. “When we go back to halfway normal, people will be stuck with those big bills.”