Representing Decatur’s Efficiency Lodge, former Gov. Roy Barnes argued in the Georgia Court of Appeals on Tuesday that the federal eviction moratorium had emboldened some motel guests to appeal for tenant rights — a ploy, he said, to avoid being kicked out for not paying the bill for their stay.

The case hinges on whether a panel of three judges sides with The Barnes Law Group, which asserts three people who have stayed at the Efficiency Lodge signed an innkeeper-guest agreement they must honor, or with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society (ALAS), which argues the behavior of those people and the motel’s proprietors constituted a landlord-tenant deal.

If Barnes wins, the lodge can kick these guests out immediately for failure to pay for their stay. If ALAS wins, the people will legally be recognized as residents, meaning the motel must proceed with a formal eviction process to force them to leave. Evicting them, though, could be complicated since legal renters can seek protection from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium.

Lindsey Siegel, an ALAS attorney working the case, told Atlanta Civic Circle last week that the issue “has the potential to affect landlord-tenant relationships across the state.”

Siegel claimed on Tuesday that her clients had made the Efficiency Lodge their homes by, among other actions, moving in their belongings, receiving mail there and having their kids picked up there by the school bus. The duration of the stay also plays a factor. One guest has been staying at the hotel for five years. Additionally, she said, Georgia law requires inns to provide housekeeping services and clean linens, and her clients did not receive such amenities.

Siegel’s team also noted that Georgia law requires innkeepers to pay tax on hotel and motel stays shorter than 90 days and that her clients had lived at the Efficiency Lodge for far longer. 

Barnes argued that shouldn’t matter. “The fact that the government only taxes for 90 days does not change the nature of the relationship,” he said, later adding, “Just the fact that a potato that’s bought at the grocery store is not subject to tax does not mean it’s not a potato.”

Judge Trea Pipkin asked Barnes, “Isn’t it true that the appellees could have left any time they wanted to leave? They were not beholden to some lease or long-term deal?”

“That’s true,” Barnes said. “We could not have sued them for lost rent or lost guest charges,” as a typical landlord could a lessee. Plus, he said, guests at the Efficiency Lodge did not have to undergo credit or background checks as a would-be leaseholder might have to. 

But that’s all by design, Siegel suggested. “Your Honors, these facts are not aberrations; this is Efficiency’s business model,” she said. “Efficiency targets a certain part of the rental market to provide long-term residence. The company knowingly houses tenants who have bad credit or evictions on their background or who can’t afford the upfront cost of a 12-month lease. It provides long-term stays to these individuals, like our clients, because there’s a market for it.” 

“Efficiency here really wants to reap all the benefits of being a landlord while exempting itself from the responsibilities,” she added.

A question still at hand, though — when or how exactly does an innkeeper-guest contract mature into a landlord-tenant agreement? 

“Just tell us what the bright line is,” Barnes said. “We’ll move everybody out after every week. We’ll give them Ms. Siegel’s number and tell them that she has demanded that everybody move every week.”

Defining the line between a hotel stay and permanent residency isn’t her role, Siegel said. That’s for Georgia lawmakers to determine.

The panel of judges is expected to rule on the case in the coming months, Barnes’ team said.In the meantime, Atlanta Civic Circle is searching for similar cases in the metro area. Are you or someone you know living at an extended-stay hotel? Tell us how long you’ve been there and how the pandemic has affected you. Email your story to sean@atlantaciviccircle.org.

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