David Dowell grabbed the row of shirts that hung on plastic hangers in his hotel-room wardrobe and set the pile on the bed. He started reaching for the boxes of food stacked in the closet, carefully arranging them next to containers of dryer sheets inside the large suitcase set atop the bedspread. A clear-plastic box with dozens of orange pill bottles rested on the nightstand nearby.
Item by item, Dowell packed up his belongings from his room at the boutique, three-and-a-half-star Hotel Indigo in downtown Winston-Salem. It was the third time he had to change hotels since he showed up in Winston-Salem about a month ago.
Dowell is just one of many people who have been evicted from extended-stay hotels and motels across the state in recent weeks. According to Ed Sharp, an attorney who specializes in housing law who works out of Legal Aid’s Greensboro office, the number of people being “thrown out of hotels” in the state has gone up since coronavirus started.
“It’s certainly in the hundreds if not higher,” Sharp said.
A longtime cancer patient, Dowell lives off Social Security and disability checks, often moving from hotel to hotel. He says he moved from Lexington to Winston-Salem towards the end of March to be closer to the hospital for his treatments.
Hotel Indigo is the third hotel he’s stayed at since coming to town.
Dowell had been staying there since April 22 and had paid for nine nights, but on Monday afternoon the manager of the hotel, Vivek Trivedi, called the police and locked Dowell out of his room. Trivedi, who stood in the doorway of the hotel room as Dowell packed, wouldn’t give a reason as to why he wanted Dowell to leave.
“I just don’t want him here,” Trivedi said.
Two downtown bike patrol officers, Sgt. KS Bowers and AT Canipe, arrived on the scene around 1:30 p.m. They didn’t charge Dowell or arrest him but simply asked him to pack up his stuff and leave. Later, the police incident report would cite the call as a trespassing incident.
While housing evictions are on hold due to a state court order, people living in hotels or motels as their primary residence don’t have the same protections. On April 3, state Attorney General Josh Stein issued an advisory on evictions from hotels and motels, stating in a letter that “landlord-tenant laws protect certain individuals who use hotel and motel rooms as their primary residence even when there is no written lease.” The advisory says that whether a person is protected is “fact-intensive and depends on evaluating all relevant circumstances” and that “hotels or motels that don’t treat individuals according to landlord-tenant laws run the risk that a judge will find that they violated the law.”
Despite the new advisory, local attorneys say that those living in hotels are still vulnerable because of the different ways the rule can be interpreted, and that there’s been a spike in hotels and motels evictions in recent weeks.
“There are quite a number of people who live in hotels or motels or extended-stay places,” Sharp said. “Those people are subject to eviction, using the term broadly, meaning able to be thrown out somehow.”
The two main ways people staying at hotels get thrown out is when hotel managers deactivate the individual’s keycard or they call the police and say that the individual is trespassing.
The attorney general’s letter also states that “hotels and motels must obtain a court order before asking local law enforcement to file trespassing charges against residents covered by the landlord-tenant laws.”
This isn’t the first time that Dowell has had police called on him at a hotel. On April 5, while he was staying at the Hawthorne Inn off High Street, two officers were called by hotel management and asked Dowell to leave.
Dowell had been staying at Hawthorne Inn since March 25 after the Brookstown Inn, where he was staying, closed. According to both Dowell and Tushar Zaver, the vice president of operations for CN Hotels which owns Hawthorne Inn, Dowell paid cash for the first night of his stay, and then provided a credit card which he used to pay through April 1. Then, Dowell said his credit card got hacked, preventing him from paying for the next few nights. On April 5, after asking Dowell to leave, management called the police to kick Dowell out. At the same time, Dowell reached out to Housing Justice Now, a local housing advocacy organization.
Individuals with Housing Justice Now and Legal Aid made the argument that because Dowell had no other place to go, the hotel qualified as his primary residence, thus protecting him from being evicted despite not having the funds to pay.
After talking with organizers as well as an attorney from Legal Aid, the hotel let Dowell stay until April 22 when he paid in full and left of his own accord.
However, hotel management said that they were in the right to ask Dowell to leave because he hadn’t paid for four nights of his stay.
“He was transient,” Zaver said in a phone interview. “He was only there for a few nights. He couldn’t have been a resident.”
According to the 1991 state court of appeals case Baker v. Rushing, judges must look at “the totality of the circumstances,” when making a decision on whether the person is considered a resident or not, Sharp said.
“If it’s the only place you have to live, maybe it is your primary residence,” Sharp said. “There’s no one factor that can answer whether or not you’re a guest or a resident.”
Other factors include whether the individual pays per night or in longer term increments like weeks or by the month. Whether or not their rooms are cleaned through maid services and whether they receive mail at the hotel is also considered. Length of stay is also a factor.
“There are no clear lines about who’s a tenant and who’s not,” said legal-aid attorney Isaac Sturgill during a recent Zoom presentation. “No one factor seals the deal. Because there’s no bright-line test, it’s up to the judge to look at all cases and decide.”
On April 22, Dowell paid his $1,600 balance and decided to leave Hawthorne Inn and move to Hotel Indigo to be closer to restaurant options. There, Dowell said he paid $632 to stay for nine nights but was refunded $209 on April 22. Then, on Monday, the police showed up to ask him to leave.
“I got money, but they don’t want it,” Dowell said. “When I asked [the manager] why he wanted me out, he couldn’t give me a reason.”
Dowell said he thinks that the manager heard about what happened at Hawthorne Inn and that’s why he wanted him out.
Sharp said that in instances where police are called, police do not have to comply with the hotel managers’ requests to get guests to leave. They can, and should, Sharp said, call supervisors or the police attorney for guidance.
“I think that when they do that, they always make better choices,” Sharp said.
Lori Sykes, the public safety attorney for Winston-Salem, said the city is operating on a case-by-case basis when it comes to hotel removals, referring to a recent city press release issued on April 24.
“If the call turns out to be from a hotel/motel indicating that they want a non-paying guest to leave, the officer will investigate the facts of the situation in order to determine whether the individual should be considered a guest or a tenant,” the release states. “Officers have been advised to contact the public safety attorney with any questions regarding the law. If a situation is not clear, the police department is not requiring the individual to leave or charging the individual with trespass, but is advising the hotel/motel manager that they would be free to pursue trespass charges themselves through the Magistrate’s Office.”
On Monday, neither officer appeared to call Sykes for additional guidance. Dowell was not charged, but packed up his things and left.
One action that lawyers are taking in these cases is to file an emergency motion for injunctive release, otherwise known as a temporary restraining order, to keep residents in the hotels. But the process is extremely resource intensive, Sharp said.
“The dynamics of the hotel/motel thing puts us in a bind,” he said. “The courts will, for the most part, only hear emergency motions.”
Later in the day on Monday, Housing Justice Now helped pay for Dowell to stay at the Comfort Inn near Hanes Mall.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” Dowell said via a phone call on Tuesday.
After his experiences in Winston-Salem, Dowell said he hoped to move to Charlotte and begin cancer treatments at a hospital there, and had put in an application for a studio apartment but was told that he didn’t make enough money to qualify, despite having enough to cover the rent.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” he said.
While there is an initiative to help house those who are vulnerable in area hotels, Dan Rose with Housing Justice Now said the process to get in can be difficult.
“You have to go to the shelters and get evaluated and then they put you on a priority list,” he said via text message. “We’re not sure how much longer we can support him.”
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The city and the police department must respond. This is inexcusable.