Sue Sullivan sells million-dollar homes for Palmer House Properties, but she’s become a crusader for metro Atlanta’s most marginalized residents—especially those forced to make extended-stay hotel rooms their homes.

Too often, Sullivan told Atlanta Civic Circle, people living in extended-stay hotels wind up living on the streets. She wants to help dismantle the hotel-to-homeless pipeline, which stems from Atlanta’s critical need for more affordable housing.

Many extended-stay residents pay as much as $300 a week for a hotel room—which is more than rent at a typical one-bedroom apartment—but they can’t find decent apartments because they don’t make enough money or because their credit scores are poor.

Sullivan learned about the obstacles that keep people trapped in extended-stay hotels when she was working with her local YMCA to help hotel residents get food, toiletries, clothing, and other household necessities.

“It opened my eyes to this whole world,” she said. But she started to feel like she was on a “one-woman crusade.” Local nonprofits and governments, Sullivan said, must sharply ramp up their outreach efforts and invest more in affordable housing to keep people from becoming permanent hotel residents—because it’s the “last step” before homelessness, she warned.

The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates over 25,000 hotel rooms in metro Atlanta have become either permanent or semi-permanent residences for low-income renters, according to an amicus brief that it filed in a lawsuit brought by three residents fighting eviction from the Efficiency Lodge in DeKalb County.

Sullivan knows she’s not the only one in town trying to aid hotel residents. “Hotel-to-Home” programs run by United Way of Greater Atlanta, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, and New Life Community Ministries work to rehouse people in safe, stable apartments—but they can each handle only a few hundred cases each year.

Sullivan particularly worries about the children of families who’ve run out of options and must move into extended-stay motels.

“The parking lot is the playground that is shared with drug deals, guns, and prostitution,” she said. “Many children remain hidden behind closed drapes to keep them safe.”

Families that turn to extended-stay hotels for shelter end up in a cycle of impermanence because they are constantly searching for cheaper options, Sullivan said.

But cheaper tends to mean more dangerous for their health and safety—more infested with pests, mold, and crime. 

“These hotels are not much better than Forest Cove,” she said, referring to the infamous southside apartment complex where the city only last week finished relocating roughly 200 families—many with children. 

Frequent moves can be detrimental to children’s educational opportunities and mental health, Sullivan said.

Students uprooted from one school district and enrolled in another are likely to face a new curriculum with different expectations: Maybe their old school was teaching multiplication tables, but at their new school, they’re expected to know long division. 

Compounding the issue are the scarcity of resources specifically for extended-stay hotels and the lack of awareness of what’s available to them. People living in extended-stay hotels have legal rights as tenants, but many don’t know about them, according to Lindsey Siegel, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society attorney who leads the organization’s housing advocacy program. 

The Efficiency Lodge case helped further establish these rights for people in Georgia who have made hotel rooms their permanent residences by moving in their belongings, receiving mail there, and having their kids picked up there by the school bus, among other actions.

In that case, Atlanta Legal Aid sued Efficiency Lodge on behalf of three tenants threatened with eviction. The Georgia Court of Appeals in March ruled that the renters and others like them must be legally recognized as tenants—not guests—and thus are entitled to renter protections, such as a right to a formal eviction process through court proceedings. (Former Georgia governor and attorney Roy Barnes, who represents Efficiency Lodge, is appealing the ruling.)

Many extended-stay hotel operators don’t make a formal eviction filing when they want to remove residents. Instead, they conduct what are called “self-help evictions,” by changing the locks or moving renters’ belongings out of their rooms.

In most of those cases, Siegel said, the renters “would become homeless if they were kicked out.”

It’s an uphill battle trying to place people stuck in hotel rooms in affordable apartments, Sullivan said, but educating extended-stay tenants about their rights and available options is a start.

“I don’t know how to help these families get out of there, unless they know they have more rights or more resources available to them,” she said.

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