Charlotte resident Jonteiz Barrier sighs deeply, counting how many hotels he’s lived in.
“I’d say about 15,” he says after a pause.
Barrier works as a line cook and drives for DoorDash and Instacart for extra money. But it’s not enough to save for a lease security deposit, and past credit issues make it tough to find housing in a competitive rental market.
For thousands of Charlotteans, this is reality. But a potential change in state law could restrict tenancy rights for those living in hotels and motels, raising alarms from housing advocates, who say the bill would take away due process in court for people facing removal.
The bill would classify people staying in hotels for less than 90 days as “transient occupants” and not tenants, meaning hotel owners could remove people without getting a court-ordered eviction.
The hotel industry is asking for the changes to help remove people who commit crimes, said N.C. Rep. John Bradford, a Mecklenburg Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors.
But housing advocates say stripping tenancy rights from people living in hotels removes crucial protections from already vulnerable people who struggle to find permanent housing. Those who fall behind on hotel payments could be locked out of their rooms and lose belongings immediately, advocates say, rather than go through eviction court.
The role of hotels and motels as a last resort before homelessness has been highlighted in the pandemic, particularly in cities like Charlotte where affordable housing is scarce. It’s often one of few options for people with credit issues, criminal histories or past evictions, or those who can’t afford substantial upfront costs to rent an apartment.
Currently, there’s disagreement over whether North Carolina law requires hotel owners to treat occupants living there as their primary residence similar to how an apartment landlord would, and use the court eviction process to remove them.
Jessica Moreno, an organizer with the Tenant Organizing Resource Center, said hotel dwellers’ tenancy rights were crucial to keeping people housed when COVID-19 struck and rendered many unable to pay.
“It’s going to take away people’s last fighting chance,” she said.
The tenancy provisions are part of the larger regulatory reform act House Bill 366, which passed two Senate committees this week and is headed for a vote in the full Senate.
Tenant or guest?
Hotel tenancy rights emerged early in the pandemic, when many people suddenly couldn’t pay. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein notified more than 100 hotels in April 2020, telling them the state’s “landlord-tenant laws also protect some individuals who use hotel and motel rooms as their primary residence.”
The attorney general’s guidance to hotel owners last year said courts consider many factors to determine if someone is considered a tenant, including length of stay, if they receive mail there and frequency of payments.
That gives people time to get an attorney or seek rental assistance, said Juan Hernandez, an attorney with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. Without it, he said, people could be put on the street and have belongings padlocked immediately.
“Instead of having to go to court and ensuring that the tenant has their due process respected, the motel owner can just call the police and say ‘There’s a trespasser, they’ve been here for two months. I want them taken out,’” Hernandez said.
“Once that protection isn’t there for people who use that as their main home, it’s going to create more homelessness, immediately.”
Rep. Bradford said Stein’s guidance, and the federal eviction moratorium, has “handcuffed” police from removing people who destroy property or commit serious crimes on hotel property. During a Senate committee hearing Tuesday, he asked lawmakers to consider a hotelier who checked in someone to their property and they suspect is committing sex trafficking.
“You call the police and the police go well, yeah, it looks like it, but we got this letter from attorney general that says you have to go through... tenant-landlord law,” Bradford said. “So good luck evicting them. They have to be stuck with these people. That’s pure nonsense.”
N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Mecklenburg, disputed that notion in the meeting.
“If you’ve got video of sex trafficking occurring in a motel and you call the police, they’re not going to waive any letter from the attorney general. They’re going to go pick people up,” Jackson said. “And if you hear reports of police not picking people up with sex trafficking on camera, give me a call. We’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officials did not respond to questions about whether Chief Johnny Jennings supports the bill, or if the department has been kept from making arrests at hotels because of the attorney general’s guidance.
Neither the state nor federal eviction moratorium prevents landlords from petitioning a judge for an eviction if a tenant is engaged in criminal activity. COVID-19 protections for evictions apply only for tenants who couldn’t pay rent due to a pandemic-related income loss or illness.
The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association supports the bill, President and CEO Lynn Minges said, in part because of the way the state revenue department collects sales and occupancy tax for stays shorter than 90 days.
“It provides needed clarity in our law for hotels, for guests, and for law enforcement,” she said in a statement. “This is the logical line that the bill draws between a transient guest and a long term tenant.”
Who is living in hotels?
People living in hotels often struggle to find more stable housing and are on the cusp of homelessness, experts say. That includes those with financial barriers to housing, as well as families who were recently homeless, escaping domestic violence or had to leave their last residence.
Mecklenburg County and partner organizations annually count how many people are living outdoors, homeless in the area but do not track how many people live in hotels. More than 1,100 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students and their younger siblings lived in hotels during the 2019-20 academic year, according to the district.
That doesn’t count single adults and households without school-age children like Leegraciea Lewis, who was evicted last year from her apartment of nine years.
Lewis, 52, struggles to find an affordable and accessible apartment near her doctors that she can navigate in the scooter she uses after a stroke paralyzed her right side.
Since November she’s lived 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 per week.
“It’s hard out here,” she said.
People living in motels who spoke to the Observer describe a landscape that’s difficult to neatly separate “long-term” and “short-term” motel dwellers. While people may consistently live in motels for months — even years — they may bounce from room to room or location to location because they run out of money or briefly stay with friends or family.
Barrier, 33, said he’s frustrated he can’t get out of the motel cycle, where he often pays more monthly than the average rent in Charlotte. It’s difficult to save for a security deposit, he said, and apply for places where earning three times the rent is often required.
Months spent paying for motel rooms meant he wasn’t building a rental history that can be used to show he’d be a consistent tenant. He and his girlfriend made the difficult decision to send their kids to live with family because they want a more stable environment for them than motels offer.
“Being able to maintain and be consistent so my children will finally be able say, ‘Daddy got a house’? Talk about life changing,” he said.