Shenika Phillips and her family had it all planned out. When a good job opportunity arose in Atlanta for her partner, Albert Godchaux, the couple and their children decided it was the right time to leave Baton Rouge.
They researched schools and neighborhoods near Godchaux’s new job as a Walmart supervisor, topped off their savings, and put their furniture in storage in Louisiana. A friend from church who had recently moved to Atlanta offered to host them until they found a place of their own.
Everything seemed to be working out, until their host got evicted from her home a few weeks after they arrived. Phillips and her family suddenly found themselves somewhere they never expected to be: Crammed into a three-room, extended-stay motel for months on end, unable to secure a permanent home.
“Everyone wants to move to Atlanta,” said Phillips. “But no one outside of Atlanta understands the housing crisis here.”
Shenika Phillips smiles brightly outside her family’s new home. Credit: Brian Yaneck
Atlanta’s acute lack of affordable housing is no secret; here at Atlanta Civic Circle, we cover it every week. The causes are abundant–from a 200,000-unit shortage of affordable homes to skyrocketing rents that far exceed low-income families’ ability to pay. With high demand and low supply, landlords can afford to be choosy–hiking rents and boxing out prospective renters with poor credit or prior evictions.
For families caught in the squeeze, extended-stay motels and hotels can be an imperfect solution. At least 30,000 people were living in extended-stay hotel rooms in the metro Atlanta area in 2021, according to data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center for a lawsuit filed against one such hotel for evicting tenants.
It’s not clear how many are families with children, but a 2019 study of people living in extended-stay motels in Norcross found that 39% of the respondents had children. Stop by any extended-stay hotel on a weekday morning, and you’ll likely see a yellow school bus picking up a gaggle of students.
With no credit checks or down payment required, residential motels provide emergency temporary housing for people who might otherwise end up on the street. And with reduced monthly rates, they are more affordable than traditional pay-by-the-night stays. But that doesn’t make them cheap: Extended-stay rooms can cost upwards of $1,500 per month, which is often more than the price of an actual apartment.
Even for people with jobs, that steep expense makes it much harder to save the thousands of dollars landlords generally require up front to cover a security deposit and first and last months’ rent–even if they can find somewhere affordable to live.
For many families caught in that trap, what starts as a temporary situation can morph into months or even years of semi-permanent living. Parents and multiple children crowd into two or three rooms, making dinner over hot plates and sleeping on air mattresses. After school, kids play wherever they can, usually in parking lots–and often in plain sight of the illegal activity that transient residences can attract, like drug deals and prostitution.
From hopeful to houseless
That’s what happened to Phillips and her family, who spent three and a half months living at an Economy Inn on Fulton Industrial Boulevard. Phillips and Godchaux paid $1,300 a month–about a third of their income–for a three-bedroom suite they shared with their three children, ages 14, 13 and six.
“They had some horrible stuff going on at that hotel,” said Phillips. “It really wasn’t the safest place for us to live.”
She and Godchaux immediately began searching for a rental home, but they weren’t prepared for the wild west of Atlanta’s housing market. “We’re country bumpkins from Louisiana!” Phillips said. “We spent three months looking around kind of lost–not knowing what to expect, not knowing there were a lot of scams going on.”
Atlanta’s soaring housing demand has created a lucrative market for scammers, who often pose as landlords or rental companies to collect application fees, security deposits, or even several months’ worth of rent. Phillips has a college degree and a paralegal background, so she knew how to use public tax records to weed out the scams, but she still found the process overwhelming.
After months of searching, she and Godchaux finally got approved to rent a house. But the family’s savings didn’t fully cover the move-in cost of first, last, and security deposit. Phillips knew the landlord would pass them over if they couldn’t pay.
The situation was beginning to feel desperate when a housekeeper at the hotel knocked on her door with a flyer about a program called Motel to Home, which provides cash assistance and support to help families move out of extended-stay motels. Phillips had never heard of such a program, but she emailed the address on the flyer.
“Shenika had already done the work,” said Mary Grace King, executive director of Frontline Housing, which runs the motel-to-home program. “We just got the ball rolling.”
How Motel to Home works
King launched Frontline Housing in January 2020 to help families living in precarious housing attain stable homes and improve their financial well-being. The nonprofit immediately began outreach at extended-stay motels and other temporary residences, knocking on doors and leaving flyers under windshield wipers.
King’s team serves as housing consultants, helping families to find a rental that fits their budget, credit score, and rental history, and then navigate the approval and moving process. Frontline Housing mainly operates in Henry and Gwinnett Counties; Atlanta has become so expensive, King said, that most of the families they work with can’t afford to look anywhere inside the perimeter.
Along with assistance finding affordable rentals, Frontline Housing’s motel-to-home program provides $1,000 for up-front move-in costs like security deposits, first and last months’ rent, and moving expenses. To qualify, families must have minor children, proof of income, and have been living in a motel for at least 30 days.
King soon realized that many families could benefit from longer-term support to take charge of their finances. “It’s hard to be stable after you’ve been in a motel,” she said. “I really wanted to combine savings and more financial education.”
She pitched the motel-to-home program to United Way, which now funds the move-in cash transfers, along with contributions from Amerigroup and a federally-funded grant program in Gwinnett.
Families can also opt into a savings program that offers $500 a month over four months, with the proviso that recipients must attend one financial literacy workshop a month and put half the money into savings. The workshops, taught by volunteer finance professionals, cover topics like improving credit scores, home buying, taxes, and investments.
A Frontline Housing volunteer teaches to a full classroom of students. Credit: Brian Yaneck
“You don’t ever get a formal education in financial well-being,” explained King. “We have a lot of really hard-working families who I think sometimes just don’t know the best thing to do with their money.” Over 200 families have already graduated from the savings program, and King said workshop attendees seem eager to learn.
Phillips said she particularly enjoyed the investing workshop, as did her son. “He’s all about investing now!”
Since starting its motel-to-home program in 2020, Frontline Housing has moved 500 families out of motels and into permanent housing–102 of them just this year. King said her team plans to place “a family a day” by the end of 2023.
Frontline Housing can’t reach every family, and because it only serves people with children, the bulk of people living in extended-stay motels don’t qualify. But King sees its motel to home program as one practical solution to mitigate Atlanta’s massive affordable housing crisis. “The prices here are just crazy,” she said, “and it makes it so difficult for people to make enough income to get housed and remain stable long-term.”
Home at last
Once Phillips and Godchaux got approved by the landlord, things progressed quickly. Up-front move-in cash from Frontline Housing helped to cover the security deposit, and the family soon moved into their new home–a tidy three-bedroom brick bungalow on Atlanta’s Westside with a leafy magnolia in the front yard.
The family’s belongings were still in storage in Louisiana, so Frontline Housing supplied furniture and bed linens through a partnership with Fully Furnished Ministries. Phillips and Godchaux pay $2,000 a month in rent, which is more than the motel cost, but well worth the extra space and sense of peace.
“We were just so happy to have a home–to feel free of all the stressors of not having somewhere to live,” Phillips said, perched on a new suede ottoman in her living room, where sunlight spilled onto freshly finished wood floors.
With the stability of their own home, the kids have resumed extracurricular activities, and Phillips has been able to start working from home on her retail business again. Two terrariums stood on an end table near the kitchen with the newest members of the family: A tree frog named Sebastian, and Raphael, a red-eared slider turtle.
The landlord said they could get a dog, but Phillips isn’t convinced just yet. “I have enough folks around here who poop!” she said with a laugh.
Most of all, Phillips said, the safety, space and comfort of their new home has allowed her family to reconnect with each in a way that wasn’t possible when the five were crowded into a temporary motel suite. “To be able to cook our meals and gather around the table at home, that feels good,” she said. “We feel like a real family again.”