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  • Helping metro Atlanta residents who call motels homeBy Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution"
    It’s been a long time coming but in a few short weeks Rimbey and Jason Schroeder, along with their three daughters, will move out of the motel room they have called home for the past year and into a Lawrenceville apartment. When I first told you about the Schroeders they were living in a Motel 6 in Norcross, one of many hardworking families and elderly individuals on a fixed income stuck in extended-stay motels in metro Atlanta. In fact, according to a survey released last spring of residents from nine extended-stay motels in Norcross, 84% of respondents indicated that an extended-stay motel is their place of residence. And, while they had jobs, they were struggling financially and couldn’t afford the upfront financial obligations they needed in order to move into a rental unit. What was also noteworthy was that 29% of the hotel residents were 55 and older. The survey was conducted in late 2018 by LiveNorcross, a local program of the statewide Georgia Initiative for Community Housing. Not surprising, dozens of readers responded after reading about the Schroeders, offering everything from gift cards to money to help cover a week’s stay at the hotel. “The outpouring of support from the readers was wonderful,” Rimbey Schroeder said recently. “We are very grateful for everyone that helped us.” But just as LiveNorcross was releasing its survey results, pleas for help to the United Way of Greater Atlanta 211 call center were increasing. “What we found was that our greatest unmet need was for families living in extended-stay hotels,” said Protip Biswas, vice president of homeless. Since then several things have happened: Months after the column about the Schroeders ran, Norcross and College Park officials each donated $25,000 to help local families in extended-stay motels find more stable housing. United Way matched their donations. Through its Motel to Home program, United Way of Greater Atlanta along with a long list of partners is working to help even more families find permanent housing. At last count, they had placed some 86 families. “That’s the model we want to promote,” Biswas said. Those partners include nonprofits St. Vincent de Paul, Action Ministries, Housing Plus, Community Concerns, and New Life Community Ministries. Still, outreach to these families can be tricky, Biswas said. Not only are hotels resistant to teams contacting families, he said, finding the resources to make deposits, helping families navigate the process or even finding the right housing can be tough. For now, Biswas said team members simply follow school buses, paying close attention to where parents are picking their children up. And so instead of going to motels, they start conversations at school bus stops near motels or the closest laundromat. “We have to start conversations with families so we know what they want to do,” Biswas said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of making a deposit or finding the right housing and then convincing the landlord to work with them. Sometimes families want their kids in Gwinnett schools but with good schools come high rents so we have to sometimes convince families to weigh their options and make hard choices.” Although families in motels aren’t considered homeless, they aren’t people staying in hotels for the short term either. They are living in a single room for four or more months at a time. Here’s why that’s a problem that extends far beyond mere homelessness. Studies show that people who live in hotels for extended periods experience more stress and domestic violence. Children suffer the most, emotionally and academically. “Housing is a fundamental need for every family,” Biswas said. “The sooner families can get into their own place, the sooner they are able to start addressing getting additional income and their child’s education performance.” It’s easy to look down our noses at these families but many are there through no fault of their own. They are often underemployed, struggling to overcome past issues with landlords, or just need additional help. In 2019 alone, more than 3,000 families in metro Atlanta in extended stays placed calls for help with the United Way 211 call center. Biswas said there is still a lot to be done. “Housing is the single largest unmet need,” he said. “It’s an area ripe for discussion and action.”
  • OPINION: Why extended-stay hotel evictions may not be legalBy Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution"
    In the six weeks since medical experts and political leaders suggested we keep our hands washed and practice social distancing to ward off COVID-19, we’ve heard a lot about getting back to normal. That might mean happier, more peaceful days for the majority of us, but for tens of thousands of others, normal won’t look like much. If that leaves you puzzled, consider for a moment the thousands of families who live in extended-stay hotels across metro Atlanta. There’s nothing normal about calling a hotel room home. Hotels are meant for temporary stays, where we lay our burdens down, take a break from, well, life. The irony that people could be kicked out of their motel room in the midst of a deadly pandemic is potent. We don’t know how many people actually live in these inns, but social service agencies estimate that somewhere around 30,000 working families in metro Atlanta live in hotels. Let me remind you that the vast majority of these families include children. That’s shameful on a whole lot of levels, but it gets even worse. Increasing numbers of these families are now receiving eviction notices. In just the last 30 days, 60 people have found their way to Atlanta Legal Aid seeking help. In normal times, they number about two per month, according to Rachel Lazarus, managing attorney at the Gwinnett County office. “These are the people who actually reach out to us,” she said. “There are many more who don’t.” Among the families who have, she said, were a man and his younger brother who had lived in a property for seven months, and had never been late on rent. He was supposed to start training for a job he could do remotely when he got behind. The manager gave him and his brother 30 minutes to get out. Even if your home is a small room, it’s tough to pack everything up in 30 minutes. They left, not knowing if they’ll ever get the things they left behind. In another instance, a family of eight, no longer able to make rent on the three rooms they needed, was forced to cram into just one. “These extended-stay properties are operating under the innkeeper’s law that lets hotels immediately kick out anyone who doesn’t pay, but that’s not how these extended stays work,” Lazarus said. “These are modern-day tenement houses.” Until recently, most people assumed that residents in these hotels had no rights because of innkeeper laws. Two things changed that thinking — a longstanding Georgia case that said people living in hotels can be tenants, and a state law that defined inns as properties that pay sales and occupancy taxes. Under Georgia law, extended-stay hotels don’t pay those taxes for residents after 90 days. “If they don’t pay those taxes, they’re not innkeepers, and if they’re not innkeepers, they should follow the same rules as any other landlord,” Lazarus said. That means people who rent a hotel room as their primary residence have the same tenancy rights as those who have a lease for an apartment or house, so hotel owners can’t legally evict anyone without due process. When they do, Lazarus said her office will sue. “When the virus hit, people who were making it week to week were suddenly furloughed or laid off,” she said. “They knew they’d be getting income eventually, but hotels didn’t want to wait for people to get money. The courts were closed, so having an eviction hearing wasn’t even possible. Someone in a traditional landlord-tenant relationship could catch up, but people in hotels risked being thrown out.” In addition to warning hotels against throwing people out without due process, Lazarus said that her office has also been busy notifying local police departments that hotel residents aren’t trespassers. “It’s not that cut and dry,” she said. Page Olson, who owns Café Intermezzo with her husband, Brian, was shocked when she learned one of her employees had been threatened with eviction. “He called terrified he was going to be on the street,” she said. Like so many other business owners, the Olsons were forced to furlough their employees on March 17. When they learned one of their cooks lived in an extended-stay hotel and was facing eviction, Page Olson, who once volunteered in the office of then-state Rep. Tom Taylor, called the state attorney general's office and urged officials to take a page from North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein's handbook. Stein released a letter in early April stating that people staying in hotels and motels as their primary residence are considered tenants and cannot be removed without a court order. By April 21, Olson said, the Georgia Department of Law's Consumer Protection Division had posted a similar notice on its website. “In seven business days, the lawyers had vetted the issue, drafted language reflective of Georgia law, and posted it for quick access to make long-term renters aware of their rights,” she said. Thanks to an anonymous donor, Olson’s cook and his family can remain where they are for now. With any luck, he has received his stimulus check and can pay his rent. But Olson and Lazarus are concerned there could be thousands of others out there who still can’t pay their rent and who don’t know their rights. “My goal is to get the word out to citizens and organizations to make people in this situation aware of their right to due process because this will only get worse,” Olson said. “As we both know, long-term housing at extended stays, especially during this pandemic, may very well be the last safety net before homelessness.” Until these residents are able to get their ducks in a row like the rest of us, Atlanta Legal Aid will be working to help them keep their housing. When you’re essentially homeless, that might mean it’s twice as hard and may take twice as long. “It’s important to understand that nobody is claiming they shouldn’t have to pay their rent,” Lazarus said. “All we’re asking is they be given some leeway because they are in this situation through no fault of their own.” So what should those who find themselves in this situation do? If they live in metro Atlanta, call Atlanta Legal Aid (404-524-5811). If they live outside the area, call Georgia Legal Services (1-833-457-7529). They can also apply online for help at atlantalegalaid.org or glsp.org. The websites also offer a long list of COVID-19 resources, such as information about applying for unemployment, expanded food stamp aid and medical care, and how to find food pantries until we get back to normal. Normal. That isn’t in the cards for a lot of people because, no matter how you look at it, calling a motel room home isn’t normal.
  • Many Norcross families working but trapped in extended-stay hotelsBy Michael E. Kanell, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution"
    They came to metro Atlanta with hopes of a new life, renting a house in Duluth and enrolling their two children in school while they looked for jobs – she in medical administration, he selling cars. It took longer than they expected to find work. Long enough that Maria and Tony Fernandez had trouble paying their rent and were evicted. Looking for a stopgap, they checked in to an extended-stay hotel in Norcross, paying $200 a week. They were like many low-wage workers who have had spotty credit or a patch of bad luck, who can't get a decent apartment. “We thought, well, 90 days and we are out of here,” Tony said. “But the job situation didn’t get better.” Six years later, they have jobs, their son is working and living on his own, their daughter is a senior in high school and the three of them still live in a motel room. “If you are alone, this is a good place, but if you have a family, there is just no privacy,” Maria said. And now, a national coronavirus crisis has made the situation in extended stay even more precarious. With massive job losses expected, the federal government has moved to prevent — at least temporarily — evictions of renters and foreclosures of homeowners who cannot make monthly payments. Someone living in a motel has no protection. Maria and Tony are still working. They plan to have an apartment by mid-April as part of Motel to Home, a year-long pilot program aimed at moving 20 families from extended stay to apartments. After that, participants will be responsible for their own rent, but Motel to Home will help pay for – and guide them through – the move­. United Way and the city of Norcross are splitting the $50,000 cost of the program, while St. Vincent de Paul of Georgia provides trained volunteers as caseworkers. "The apartment isn't the goal," said Denise Fisher, an SVdP volunteer and the program's manager. "The goal is stable housing." And the urgency has increased. A motel can toss out a guest who misses one day’s payment. "They'll live in their car," Fisher said. "If they have a car." A spokesman for Intown Suites, one of the larger extended-stay chains, said Monday that the company is juggling priorities. “We are exploring all options to support our guests during these unprecedented times while seeking to ensure we can continue effectively running our establishments, provide outstanding service to all in-house guests and pay our staff,” he said. A spokesman for Extended Stay America offered similar sentiments. “We are currently evaluating many options to support our hotel guests while working to ensure we can continue to provide excellent service, take care of our associates and maintain high standards at our properties, while providing a safe and clean environment for guests and associates,” he said. Red Roof Inn, which owns HomeTowne Studios, said Monday that the individual motels are independent franchisees. But Red Roof said it is recommending that they provide an unspecified "grace period" for guests who cannot pay. United Way previously jointly funded a similar program with the city of College Park and had a 75% success rate, said Protip Biswas, vice president for homelessness at United Way of Greater Atlanta. The situation is common. While there are no hard data, social agencies and local officials say thousands of working families in metro Atlanta live in hotels – generally paying by the week or even by the day. There are at least 10,000 families in extended-stay motels, “but maybe it’s 20,000 or 30,000,” Biswas said. “They are working poor. We tend to ignore them because they are not homeless yet. No one has done a study, except in Norcross. And that was an eye-opener.” Maria and Tony are still working. They plan to have an apartment by mid-April as part of Motel to Home, a year-long pilot program aimed at moving 20 families from extended stay to apartments. After that, participants will be responsible for their own rent, but Motel to Home will help pay for – and guide them through – the move­. United Way and the city of Norcross are splitting the $50,000 cost of the program, while St. Vincent de Paul of Georgia provides trained volunteers as caseworkers. "The apartment isn't the goal," said Denise Fisher, an SVdP volunteer and the program's manager. "The goal is stable housing." And the urgency has increased. A motel can toss out a guest who misses one day’s payment. "They'll live in their car," Fisher said. "If they have a car." A spokesman for Intown Suites, one of the larger extended-stay chains, said Monday that the company is juggling priorities. “We are exploring all options to support our guests during these unprecedented times while seeking to ensure we can continue effectively running our establishments, provide outstanding service to all in-house guests and pay our staff,” he said. A spokesman for Extended Stay America offered similar sentiments. “We are currently evaluating many options to support our hotel guests while working to ensure we can continue to provide excellent service, take care of our associates and maintain high standards at our properties, while providing a safe and clean environment for guests and associates,” he said. Red Roof Inn, which owns HomeTowne Studios, said Monday that the individual motels are independent franchisees. But Red Roof said it is recommending that they provide an unspecified "grace period" for guests who cannot pay. United Way previously jointly funded a similar program with the city of College Park and had a 75% success rate, said Protip Biswas, vice president for homelessness at United Way of Greater Atlanta. The situation is common. While there are no hard data, social agencies and local officials say thousands of working families in metro Atlanta live in hotels – generally paying by the week or even by the day. There are at least 10,000 families in extended-stay motels, “but maybe it’s 20,000 or 30,000,” Biswas said. “They are working poor. We tend to ignore them because they are not homeless yet. No one has done a study, except in Norcross. And that was an eye-opener.” Norcross, bisected by several highways, has a high concentration of motels. Buses come to the motels, picking up children in the early morning when school is open, dropping them off in the afternoon. The Gwinnett Housing Corp. sent workers to knock on doors at the hotels over the course of two months, said Lejla Prljaca, chief executive. The result: 84% of those that answered were living there, she said. “Quite a few of the hotels are 100% occupied by families. And the vast majority of them work.” While Norcross has a high concentration of extended-stay hotels – 14 – it is not unique. Michael Murphy, chairman’s assistant for special projects in Cobb County, said Cobb has not yet been able to carry out a similar survey, but he thinks the results would be parallel. “I think it’s a widespread problem,” he said. Murphy estimates that the county has nearly 30 extended-stay hotels and motels, averaging about 100 rooms each with roughly one-third of them occupied by families. School buses commonly pick up and drop off students at the hotels. “The schools very concerned,” he said. “So many children are in these extended stays. It just boggles the mind.” It’s not a good situation for adults, but for children, it’s a recipe for trouble: cramped arrangements, little privacy, no play space and in some hotels, high rates of crime. Families in metro Atlanta extended stays typically pay between $200 and $325 a week. What they pay the motel is often as much as they would pay for rent for modest housing. And money, of course, is a big part of the problem: four of 10 metro Atlanta workers make less than $15.40 an hour – roughly $32,000 a year, which is $2,667 a month – according to the Brookings Institution. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Norcross is about $1,390 a month, according to Apartment List. That means families are stretching each month, so an unexpected expense – a car, a medical problem – can spin them into delinquency and eviction. And once you’ve lost an apartment, it can be expensive to get another one. Typically, landlords require that prospective tenants pay a security deposit along with a month’s rent – as well as application fees. Many workers who could afford to pay the monthly rent struggle to come up with the $2,000 to $3,000 needed to start renting again. The Norcross program helps participants by fronting those payments to the landlord. The program provides weekly sessions with Clearpoint, a not-for-profit agency that offers financial counseling. Each participant also has a St. Vincent case worker to help them, Fisher said. "It's a whole different experience when you have a case worker who takes you by the hand and says, 'Let's go to Clearpoint and find out how to handle finances,' or who says, 'I'm going to go with you to take a look at apartments.'" Not all communities have the same perspective. Snellville, which has only one long-term stay hotel, recently passed a city ordinance that limits how long guests can be at an extended stay: 180 days consecutively is the maximum. Proponents said the issue was safety, citing a government report that found extended-stay hotels often became hubs for sex trafficking, prostitution and drug violations. The Gwinnett County Solicitor General recently cited similar concerns about the number of crimes committed at Norcross hotels. In mid-February, Quwahana Anderson sat on the edge of her bed in a Norcross hotel, where she was paying $280 a week, plus fees for fresh linens. Her two teenagers slept together in the other bed. She’d been living there since June and, talking about the situation with a reporter, she teared up. “It’s hard. My kids get teased at school, other kids calling them homeless.” She had moved from Macon, finding a job as a customer-service rep at a large electronics firm in Alpharetta and figuring she’d stay just a few months, she said. “This is the first time I’ve been in a situation like this. I never thought of myself as homeless, but that’s what it is.” Anderson couldn’t put together the money she needed as down payment for an apartment. Plus she has a checkered credit history, and she owes several thousand dollars for courses at a for-profit college. But she began working with Motel to Home, which offered guidance about personal budgeting, then paid application fees, security deposit and first month's rent – about $2,500 – that she needed for a three-bedroom apartment. A church group helped stock her pantry. Another pledged to bring in furniture. On March 6, she picked up her kids and took them to their new home. Motel to Home made the payment to the landlord, and she has the apartment for $1,050 a month. The situation has gotten more complicated for the Fernandez family, readying to move into an apartment with the program’s help. With the spread of the coronavirus, the church group stopped delivering furniture, so the family will move in without any. They aren’t going to wait. “It’s the perfect place,” Maria Fernandez said. “April can’t come fast enough.”
  • Slow start for Atlanta’s rent relief program surprises
    LOCAL NEWS| Oct 19, 2020 By J.D. Capelouto, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ​ When the city of Atlanta announced it was launching a $22 million emergency rental relief program, it had a goal of helping 6,700 families struggling to pay their rent during the coronavirus pandemic. Two months into the initiative, only a fraction of that total have received assistance. According to United Way of Greater Atlanta, which is administering the funds on behalf of the city, 800 people have received rent relief through the program, which is paid for through federal CARES Act funds. ​ “We were expecting a huge influx of applications,” said Protip Biswas, who heads up homelessness prevention efforts at United Way Atlanta. “What’s been surprising is, we are not overwhelmed with applications.” Paying rent has been a challenge for many low-income tenants during the pandemic as many have lost jobs or income due to business cutbacks. Thousands of evictions for nonpayment have been filed in metro Atlanta, though a federal moratorium on evictions is temporarily keeping many of those cases from moving forward. In a statement announcing the rent relief program, United Way Atlanta President and CEO Milton Little said as many as 16,000 households in the city make under $50,000 and are at risk of layoffs due to the pandemic. ​ Nearly 8,000 people have applied for help through the city’s relief program, Biswas said. But he estimated about half do not live in the city of Atlanta, so they aren’t eligible. ​ For the folks who do live in the city, United Way connects them with caseworkers from a partner agency, which works to confirm they are eligible for the funds and helps them submit the required documentation. ​ The requirements are steep. Applicants must make less than 60% of the area median income —about $50,000 annual for a family of four — and submit proof of income for each adult in the home, proof of residence, and a utility bill or rent statement. Applicants also must show proof of an “extenuating circumstance” that has caused a loss of income like a furlough notice or check stubs showing reduced work hours. United Way can then directly pay the landlord to cover the tenant’s rent. Right now, residents receive up to $3,000 in aid. The deadline for the CARES money to be spent at the end of the year, Biswas said. ​ Biswas said about 1,000 to 1,200 families have been assigned a case manager and are in the documentation process. But “some of those people might not follow up” or be able to easily produce the required forms, he said, adding that some of the steps are legal mandates for how the federal relief funds can be used. ​ “There are certain requirements that we have to meet, but we’re trying to be flexible,” Biswas said, adding that they have had discussions with the city about possibly loosening some of the parameters. “We’re learning as we go.” Generally, housing experts and advocates say rental relief programs should be easy to apply for and access. Brian Goldstone, a local writer and housing activist, said on Twitter that data showing low assistance rates in Atlanta’s program so far are “incredibly disturbing." Biswas urged Atlanta families who need help to apply as early as possible. The federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year, and housing advocates are concerned that a wave of tenants who fell behind on their rent could suddenly be evicted from their homes in early 2021. The moratorium has suspended evictions for nonpayment of rent but does not forgive rent, so many renters could owe thousands in back rent once evictions are restarted by the courts. “I’m worried about the scale of this,” Biswas said. “If everyone took advantage of this program right now and paid of some of their past dues, then we’re in a much better situation.” United Way also plans to step up its marketing and outreach efforts so more people know about the relief program. To apply for assistance through United Way: Apply online at www.relief.uwga.org. Text the keyword C19-ERA to 898-211 to be directed to the application page. Visit http://211online.unitedwayatlanta.org/ Call 211 to speak with a live 2-1-1 specialist. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
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