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I-TEAM | Thrown out like trash: Motel move-out policy to change?

Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 6:23 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Long-term residents of motels are scrambling to find shelter a few days before Augusta’s biggest week for visitors – when local homeless shelters are already at capacity.

It’s been two years since the I-TEAM first exposed local motels owners forced long-term residents out in order to make room for out-of-town guests. But a lot has changed with COVID. More families than ever have turned to area motels during the post-pandemic housing crisis.

Until this month, motel families had little protection under the law. The I-TEAM breaks down a new court decision that makes it harder for the motel and hotel owners to shut the door on long-term guests.

The courts define the relationship between a guest of a hotel and the hotel owner as “innkeeper and guest.” This month, an appeals court in Georgia ruled the relationship between long-term guests and hotel owners is “landlord-tenant” not “innkeeper-guest.”

That means owners will now have to go through the eviction process to force them out. This year, one woman told us she has the option to stay for $300 a night versus the $63 a night she is usually charged when it’s not tournament week.

“Just depressed.  Overwhelmed.” Says the woman we will call Stacie who sat down with us to discuss this harsh new reality. “Don’t know what to do. … Don’t know what to do.”

The reality is COVID changed everything including the housing market. Stacie says she and her fiancé had a home, but then her landlord sold the property and they had to move.

“We could not find anything to rent so we came here”

Here was a motel on Washington Road at the beginning of the year. She says a lot of the “neighbors” at the motel are also long-term renters like herself. Living examples of just how many people regionally have turned to motels for shelter as the pandemic dried up their affordable housing options throughout the area.

Stacie says she spends $63 a night or nearly $2000 a month to stay at the motel, unable to save up to get out and find something more permanent when the motel rent is more than a house payment itself.

Golf week presents a whole other problem.

“We got to move out for Masters week or we got to pay $300 a night fee what they will be charging for Masters week.”

Motel owners forced guests to leave their rooms for the tournament long before the pandemic shut down travel and limited patrons into the event. We showed you families being forced out in 2018 and 2019.

Business owners expect this year’s tournament, the third since COVID, to be much like those of the before times.

Stacie says motel management told her to come back after tournament week. “Do you hear yourself?  Do you hear what you are saying to me?  What are we going to do?  We need a place to get rest at night so we can get up and work in the morning.”

It’s unclear how many families moved into motels due to housing loss during the pandemic.  What is clear is the city of Augusta is in the middle of the homeless and affordable-housing crisis.

Area shelters are already at capacity. That leaves Stacie and her fiancé without somewhere to go for the week.

Col. Bill Probus is with the Richmond County Marshal’s Office: “I think there is a potential it will create a little more problematic for our shelters. Yes, I do.  I don’t think these people have a summer home they can go stay in the Hamptons.”

Probus’ office handles evictions that until recently did not involve motel guests. “What is in play is what is the relationship between someone staying in a motel and the person owning the motel.”

On March 7, 2022, an appeals court in Georgia ruled the relationship between the owner of an extended stay motel and a guest staying more than 90 days is not that of a typical “innkeeper-guest” but instead “landlord-tenant.”

“That was a landlord-tenant relationship which would have necessitated the whole eviction process being initiated, as opposed to saying oh you didn’t pay your bill get out of my room,” explains Probus.

Motel owners must now file a case at the courthouse to legally force a long-term guest to pay by the week out. The ruling does not specify if the protection extends to people like Stacie, long-term motel residents paying by night.

“It is embarrassing when people see you are living in a hotel they think, oh, they can’t pay their bill if I can pay $63 a night then I surely, I can pay rent (sobs).”

Left with no other place to call home and no other options, she must pack her bags and go.

Now it will most likely take a guest suing a motel to get further clarification from the courts. Stacie can’t even save enough for a deposit while paying $2,000 a month to stay at a motel, let alone pay for a lawyer.

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