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‘A Horrible Situation’: Housing Advocates Say Virginia Policy Leaves People In Hotels At Risk Of Homelessness

Photo by Sam Turken/WHRO. Some people living in hotels were covered under the eviction ban.
Photo by Sam Turken/WHRO. Some people living in hotels were covered under the eviction ban.

Housing advocates say a little-known Virginia policy is allowing people who live in hotels and motels to become homeless as they remain laid off amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A clause in the Commonwealth’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act identifies people living in hotels for more than 90 consecutive days as tenants. Therefore, they qualify under a new state measurethat gives tenants about two months to catch up on missed rent before an eviction.

However, any resident living in a hotel for fewer than 91 days has no eviction protections and can be locked out soon after they miss a room payment.

"This arbitrary determination was not good policy," said Christine Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. "It really hits you in a crisis like this."

The problem is widespread because many hotel residents have nowhere else to live. Thaler McCormick, CEO of ForKids — a Hampton Roads family homeless shelter — said they may have poor credit, criminal records, a prior eviction history or cannot afford a security deposit for an apartment.

She said the shelter’s regional crisis hotline received about 2,500 calls last year from people living in hotels.

"Their hotels are very much the only option they have for a roof over their head," McCormick said.

Marra noted Virginia already has some of the highest eviction rates in the country, and the hotel issue reflects a need for more affordable housing. In the shorter term, she added, the 90-day policy should be updated to cover anybody living in a hotel or motel, regardless of how long they’ve been there.

"I recently asked my legal aid attorneys across the state, ‘If you could change any one law, what would it be,'" Marra said. "There were a number of people who said the hotel and motel rule."

‘I Don’t Want To Be Out Here Like This’

Virginia is currently giving tenants a 60-day grace period to catch up on missed rent if they can prove they’ve lost money due to COVID-19. From mid-March through mid-May, the state also had a moratorium on all evictions.

The state's 90-day rule has prevented many hotel residents like Cydney Page from qualifying for the eviction protections.

Before the pandemic, money was already tight for Page.

She worked at a senior residential center, and she and her three children were living at a Studios & Suites 4 Less hotel in Chesapeake. It was affordable and she was saving for a new apartment.

"But then as the coronavirus started, it became harder for me to be able to pay the room because I was laid off," she said.

Page has since been bouncing around hotels and motels, trying to find the cheapest one. She’s receiving unemployment, but it’s barely enough to pay for food, her phone bill and a place to sleep. Page can’t stay with family members because they don’t have space for her and her kids.

She’s currently struggling to pay for a room at an InTown Suites Extended Stay in Chesapeake. Because she doesn’t meet the 90-day threshold, the hotel can lock her out soon after she misses a payment. She said she thinks about becoming homeless everyday.

"It’s stressful. It really is. I don’t want to be out here like this. I try every day," she said in a recent interview outside her hotel room. She began to cry.

"I don’t know where it might take me and my kids the next day or the next week," she said, adding that the 90-day policy is unfair.

WHRO has spoken to other people in a similar position.

Markeeda Jones, her disabled mother and three of her children lived in a Norfolk hotel room for about four weeks before she lost her job as a private school janitor due to the pandemic.

Since then, she's also been moving around hotels trying to find a cheap room. She relies on money from churches and non-profit organizations to pay for her stays.

‘I Made A Mistake’

The 90-day clause is the product of a negotiated compromise between housing advocates, the hotel industry and other stakeholders in 2012. Marra, the housing advocate with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, was one of the central figures in the agreement.

She said before then, people living in hotels could become tenants after 30 days under Virginia law. But the rule was unclear, so advocates, real estate attorneys and the hotel industry agreed to rewrite it.

The process took months of debate. The Virginia Housing Commission and General Assembly ultimately  approved the final policy before it became law in 2013.

"The hotel industry wanted something longer and we wanted it 30 days. The compromise that we reached is now creating homelessness unnecessarily,” Marra said. "I’ll be the first one to say I made a mistake."

The Virginia Restaurant Lodging and Travel Association, which represents the hotel industry, declined to comment for this story. Hotels including InTown Suites and MacThrift Motor Inn in Virginia Beach also did not have a response.

Richmond real estate attorney John G. "Chip" Dicks helped write the rule and agreed with the 90-day time threshold. He said the negotiation over the policy involved several factors.

Many hotels and motels are not designed to house people for long periods of time, and could violate city codes if they do. Hotel owners also don’t want people becoming tenants because then they must go to court to evict them, Dicks said. The eviction process can be long and costly for hotels.

But Dicks said there was agreement that hotels and motels should be an option for people with nowhere else to live.

"What we wanted to do was create this bucket of housing that encouraged these motel owners to house people that otherwise would be homeless," Dicks said.

In an interview, he argued modifying the 90-day rule could have an opposite effect.

The current policy allows people to live in a hotel or motel for 90 days without having to meet normal tenant qualifications like background checks or security deposits. If the threshold is shortened, Dicks said, more people would have to satisfy that criteria.

"That keeps people from being housed that are currently being housed in a hotel," Dicks said, noting that a lot of hotel residents wouldn't meet the tenant qualifications.

Still, Dicks agrees COVID-19 has reflected weaknesses in the policy. He said he’s open to lawmakers revisiting the statute to determine whether it strikes a right balance.

"Nobody in 2012 foresaw the disaster that we’re dealing with now," he said, referring to the pandemic. "That gives a different lens to all of these various different issues."

'Fair Contracts'

Other states have stronger protections for people living in hotels,  shielding them from evictions amid the pandemic. California, for example, recognizes a hotel resident as a tenant after 30 consecutive days of occupancy.

Pam Kestner, deputy director of housing for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, said she’s aware of concerns about the 90-day policy. In an interview, she said she’s willing to meet with housing advocates to discuss it further.

"For this group of households that are falling kind of through the cracks, certainly it’d be something we’d be open to learning more about what might need to happen," Kestner said.

Virginia’s General Assembly could modify the 90-day rule at a next session. Multiple state lawmakers said they would consider changing it.

Delegate Don Scott, who represents parts of Hampton Roads, said hotels and motels have expenses, and the commonwealth should account for their interests. But he added he wants to protect vulnerable people living in hotels and motels.

"We have to balance this out by protecting both sides and making sure we have fair contracts," Scott said.

However, until the law is modified, laid-off people could continue moving from hotel to hotel, fearing they'll be locked out soon after they miss a room payment.

"This is a horrible situation," Christine Marra said. "It’s creating homelessness unnecessarily in the middle of a public health crisis."

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