Whether someone staying in a hotel room can be forced out for non-payment during the COVID-19 freeze on evictions might be a gray area of the law, but it didn’t seem very gray to Brandy VanRiper on Friday.
VanRiper said she ran out of money, and on Friday was being told she had to leave unless she could come up with her daily payment of $57 for a hotel room in Winston-Salem.
VanRiper pointed to her belongings in a tote bag as she talked about her fears.
“I have nowhere to go,” she said Friday morning. “No car to put it in and nowhere to take it. I have reached out to several people in the community. Everyone said they can help me with a deposit on permanent housing...”
Ed Sharp, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, said hotel evictions are a significant problem all over the state.
“It’s becoming a much bigger problem because of COVID,” Sharp said.
A 1991 appeals court decision found that the state’s landlord-tenant laws protect some hotel or motel occupants when they use their rooms as their primary residence, even though they are not staying there under a written lease.
The court didn’t leave the state with cut-and-dried rules for determining whether or not a hotel occupant was a tenant. According to N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, in a recent letter to hotel operators, that decision is one that depends on “fact-intensive” inquiry and “evaluating all relevant circumstances.”
Sharp said the attorney general’s letter has been helpful as Legal Aid goes to bat for hotel guests it feels qualify as tenants.
“If we believe that a hotel or motel resident, as opposed to a guest, is being thrown out illegally, we generally try to talk to the manager, or police, and explain our view of things that this person is a resident, and try to convince them not to go through with throwing this person out,” Sharp said.
In some cases, Sharp said, Legal Aid has no option but to go to court to obtain a temporary restraining order to stop the eviction.
“It is pretty common that the manager will say, I will give them an extra couple of days,” Sharp said. “They usually back down when they realize the courts may be getting involved.”
To be clear, Legal Aid does not give out the names of hotel guests it is helping, and it could not be confirmed whether or not the group intends to help VanRiper.
VanRiper later got help from a local charity to stay the night on Friday, but worried about the next day. She said her husband has gotten a good-paying job in Asheville but hasn’t gotten his first paycheck yet. She just needs to bridge a couple weeks of income, she said. She moved into the hotel in February and has been staying there since then.
Her own job, waiting tables, vanished in the COVID-19 shutdown, and she hadn’t had the job long enough to qualify for unemployment, she said.
Andrea Thompson, speaking for the hotel chain, said Friday afternoon that VanRiper’s “situation has been addressed” and that she “has not been evicted and HomeTowne Studios continues to work with her.” Asked what that means for VanRiper’s future stay at the hotel, Thompson said the property belongs to an independent franchise that is “working with the guest as it relates to this situation.”
Andrea Kurtz, the senior director of housing strategies for the United Way of Forsyth County, said there’s been an explosion of hotel evictions during the coronavirus crisis.
People who live in hotels are often service workers, and they are a class of folks who have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 shutdowns. These residents are often off the radar to social services agencies, she said, because they have typically been making enough money to meet their needs, at least until recently.
People who live in hotels often don’t realize their rights or get intimidated into leaving when they run into a money crunch, she said.
“The motel owners hold most of the power,” she said. “We have seen them change locks, clean out rooms, turn off power and electricity — the same kind of illegal tactics we see traditional landlords using.”
Kurtz said hotel tenants have told her that when police show up, they often inform the resident that it’s a civil problem, “which leaves the tenant with unenforceable rights in that moment.”
“Faced with escalating behaviors or leaving, many of them just leave because they are intimidated,” Kurtz said.
Winston-Salem police recently issued a press release stating that it does not carry out evictions. The release said police do get called out for various reasons to hotels and motels.
“If the call turns out to be from a hotel/motel indicating they want a non-paying guest to leave, the officer will investigate the facts of the situation to determine whether the individual should be considered a guest or a tenant,” the release stated.
If it is not clear, the release goes on to state, police don’t require the guest to leave, but tell the inn owner that they are free to pursue trespass charges through the magistrate’s office.
In Forsyth County, a COVID-19 relief fund gave $100,000 to Legal Aid to help with tenancy issues, including mediation of hotel and motel tenancy matters.
While Legal Aid doesn’t typically take cases that hinge only on non-payment, in Forsyth County the agency is able to do so.
Dan Rose, with the group Housing Justice Now, has been involved in VanRiper’s case as well as with others facing eviction. Rose said police need to be held more accountable in their role dealing with these cases.
“The hotel operators and police appear to have been working together to un-house vulnerable people during this pandemic,” he said. “That is a contradiction to the police statement they made last week. We are going to hold the police accountable to their words and stop these wrongful evictions.”