By Mia Khatib
RALEIGH — Amid the state’s affordable housing crisis, many struggling North Carolinians live in hotels, motels and other similar lodgings. State law protects these residents from removal without eviction, but a bill that recently passed the Senate could change things.
If passed, all hotel guests would be “transient occupants” and without landlord-tenant protections for the first 90 days of their stay, making it easier for hotel owners to remove guests even if they live there. Bill proponents say it will bring clarity to the law and improve hotel safety, but affordable housing advocates say it will harm already vulnerable people, something that Gov. Roy Cooper also wrote when he vetoed a similar bill in 2021.
“We’re removing critical protections that we’ve offered North Carolinians for over three decades,” Democratic Sen. Mutjaba Mohammed told The Tribune. “[This bill] is essentially saying that vulnerable people in North Carolina are transient, that we don't see you and that you don't matter.”
Several amendments proposed by Mohammed would have exempt groups from the bill’s three-month threshold, but they were all tabled without discussion. The groups included families with children, domestic violence victims, some veterans and elders, people on post-release supervision, and natural disaster victims.
Mohammed said he understands the frustrations of hoteliers that have struggled with troublesome guests, but that’s not the vast majority of people. He said at least the vulnerable groups mentioned in his amendments should be protected, and the Republican majority ignored his repeated requests to compromise.
“I'm hopeful that the General Assembly can come together in a bipartisan way to address this issue, and not kick these individuals to the curb, or at least provide some sort of reasonable solutions in the alternative,” he said.
Republican Sen. Vickie Sawyer told The Tribune that while Mohammed brought up valid questions, his amendments were “off base” and blurred the lines between landlord-tenant law and innkeeper law. She said innkeepers in Statesville, part of her district, were unable to remove paying guests that were drug trafficking because it was their primary residence.
“I know there's homeless problems, and we need to really invest in that. But I don't think you should tell a hotelier that they have to provide homeless shelters in their business,” she said. “If we’re going to make a private business pay for something out of their pocket, then we as a state need to reimburse those expenses.”
Sawyer also said that law enforcement officers in her district had different interpretations on when a hotelier can ask someone to leave the premises, and it ultimately came down to the officer’s discretion. “It just was so gray, and there was no clarity, so this law basically works to clear that up,” she said. “It just makes that jump between innkeeper to lessor at the 90-day mark.”
Bill Rowe, an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, said apartment fees and screening requirements are some of the biggest problems forcing people into motels. For example, he said, some people can’t afford to put down a security deposit, and many landlords turn away tenants with poor credit, a prior eviction or a criminal record.
Rowe said many motels across the state have adopted business models for long-term renting, and while he doesn’t think they will all act in bad faith, it’s “bad public policy” to implement the bill as it stands today. Still, he is hopeful a compromise can be reached and said discussions are taking place between housing advocates and hoteliers outside the chamber doors.
“It would be helpful to get clarity in the statute, but we're clearing it up by taking away the rights that people had before,” he said. “I think we can work this out in a way that we can protect people.”
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