The handful of local nonprofits trying to help extended-stay motel residents find stable, affordable housing is “overwhelmed” by the huge number of appeals, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia’s new housing director, Mariel Risner Sivley, told Atlanta Civic Circle on Friday.
In metro Atlanta alone, more than 25,000 lower-income people, often with families, are using motel rooms as permanent or semi-permanent residences, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Risner Sivley said St. Vincent de Paul’s “motel-to-home” program—like those of United Way of Greater Atlanta, New Life Community Ministries, and other nonprofits—faces a herculean task in trying to rehouse even a fraction of these motel-dwellers in affordable apartments.
Since St. Vincent de Paul launched its motel-to-home program in 2020, it’s rehoused nearly 200 people, she said. United Way is on track to relocate one household a day this year, with 292 families helped so far, according to its website.
People who live in motels generally don’t make enough money to save up a deposit plus a couple months advance rent for an apartment, and they may have an eviction on their record that creates another barrier. Many can afford monthly rental payments at affordable complexes, but they need help coming up with the initial money to land an apartment.
That’s where motel-to-home programs come in, by providing financial assistance to help people pay for those expenses, identifying available affordable rentals—which can be a needle-in-a-haystack challenge—and then providing supportive services once people are placed.
Most of St. Vincent de Paul’s clients have a job–and many have several–but they’re low-wage, Risner Sivley said, so people have trouble saving up the advance deposit and rent for metro Atlanta’s increasingly expensive apartments.
“They’re not generally taking home more than $2,500 a month, so they’re not able to make that deposit to move out of the extended-stay motel,” she said. “And if they have an eviction on their record in this market, it’s very hard to find a new landlord.”
Motel-to-home programs can place even people with crippling prior eviction filings in safe, affordable apartments. When a landlord sees an eviction filing on a credit report, they turn renters away, Risner Sivley said.
“Landlords are not asking specific questions about what happened,” she explained. St. Vincent de Paul and the other motel-to-home programs are more discerning, asking applicants for explanations that could justify their displacement.
Still, program operators are faced with the dire shortage of affordable apartments in metro Atlanta.
St. Vincent de Paul receives around 40 applications weekly, Risner Silvey said, meaning rapidly rehousing everyone who seeks help is virtually impossible until more affordable units are created.
These grant-funded programs potentially save lives by removing renters from sometimes dilapidated and dangerous hotels and placing them where they can thrive, Risner Sivley said.
But the programs don’t accept everyone: St. Vincent de Paul doesn’t take people without children under 18, and applicants need to have stable income, even if it’s from publicly subsidized housing vouchers.
Realtor and housing affordability activist Sue Sullivan told Atlanta Civic Circle that nonprofits and local governments with rental assistance programs should focus more on families with young children stuck at extended-stay motels, because they are living around drug dealing, prostitution, and violent crime.
Many renters living at extended-stay hotels only live there because they have no other options and would otherwise be homeless, Sullivan said, adding that these programs provide much needed assistance to metro Atlanta’s working poor, but they’re far from enough.