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NORCROSS, Ga. – 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.”

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.”

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