Keidra Chancellor has stayed with her five children at the HomeTowne Studios extended-stay hotel on Jesse Jewell Parkway since February.
At one point, they had a choice: put down money on a home, knowing they would struggle every month and might end up losing it, or buy a vehicle for the family.
The family bought a Suburban.
“If we get a big enough car and we need to sleep in the car, it’s big enough for us to sleep in there,” she said. “We were able to get to the Budgetel for a week, and there was always like a week where we didn’t have the money for it, so we’d have to sleep in the car for a week until my husband got paid.
Chancellor said she has called around to shelters but has not found one yet that can accommodate their large family.
A lack of affordable housing and the steep cost of the hotels means it is difficult for Chancellor to save up enough money for a down payment and the first month’s rent somewhere else.
She said she applied for an apartment earlier this month but was denied because of an outstanding utility bill.
“I just want to be stable for my kids, get them out of this situation,” she said.
Tommy Roesser moved into a Gainesville hotel after spending several months in a shelter and with only a few hundred dollars saved.
“The reason I’m in this situation is I was a drug addict for a while — been sober for almost two years now and trying to rebuild my life,” Roesser said. “I don’t want to live here forever in a hotel, but right now it’s the only practical thing I can do.”
Roesser has been living on and off in these hotels for a couple of years, staying a handful of months at a time. He bikes to his two jobs in the midtown area.
Putting down a first and last month’s rent or a deposit would likely deplete most of his savings, he said.
“Getting the money saved up, it might take me a year living here to get a down payment on a house or something like that,” Roesser said. He splits the $244 per week room cost at the Budgetel Inn and Suites with a roommate.
Earlier this month, city officials proposed some changes to how these hotels and others are regulated.
What are the rules?
The regulations, which will be voted on Dec. 17 by the Gainesville City Council, would limit stays at hotels to 15 consecutive days and stays at extended-stay hotels to 30 days. Currently, the city defines lodging services as facilities that offer the same room for 15 or fewer days and extended stay lodging services as those offering accommodations for more than 15 days and up to a month in the same room.
The proposal includes a new “maximum length of occupancy” section stating that lodging services are only allowed to offer rooms to patrons within those limits.
Advocates for the homeless and others concerned with affordable housing were vocal at a Nov. 12 planning board meeting, saying the rules would put a strain on those already struggling to put a roof over their heads.
City leaders say kicking people out of hotels is not their goal.
“We’ve been racking our brains. I don’t know that the city has ever enacted that 30-day provision to kick them out … and we don’t have a focus to do that,” Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey said in a meeting with Times reporters following the public outcry.
Lackey said the rules are instead intended to address safety issues, specifically with occupants using spaces as kitchens that weren’t set up for that use.
Lackey said there were 32 complaints in the “past few years” regarding spaces being converted into kitchens.
“It’s the older hotels — and there’s probably two or three that are on our lists right now — that we see the complaints have been coming from,” Lackey said. “They went from just being a hotel and they kind of moved to what I’ll say is the extended-stay business model.”
The proposal defines extended-stay hotels as those with more than 5% of rooms having “fixed cooking appliances” and/or kitchen facilities.
Kitchen facilities consist of refrigerators, stoves, ovens and a kitchen-type sink, while “fixed cooking appliances” include stove top burners, hotplates not part of a coffee maker, a conventional oven or a convection oven.
Lackey and Rusty Ligon, Gainesville’s community and economic development director, said they have looked to see what other municipalities have done concerning lodging.
Lackey said they have heard other hotels have contemplated converting to extended stay, and city management wants to “get ahead of those and make sure they convert in the right manner.”
Safety issues will “need to be addressed for both existing and new” lodging services, he said.
How will rules be enforced?
Lackey said the city will enforce any new ordinances like it has in the past. There are no additional penalties proposed for hotels not following these rules.
When a violation is reported, code enforcement will contact the property owner or manager.
“In most cases, voluntary compliance is achieved. In rare instances, when property (a) owner/manager fails to bring their property into compliance, Municipal Court citations may be issued,” Lackey wrote in an email.
Regarding the maximum stay rules specifically, Lackey said it is a “complaint-driven-type thing” and that they are not interested in doing sweeps.
“It’s going to have to be a really bad situation if somehow the 30-day situation comes into effect, and I can tell you that our staff is going to handle that with compassion and dignity,” he said.
If they can’t stay in the room, Lackey said the city would look to see if the tenants can be moved to another room in the facility.
“If that’s not available because, let’s say they’re full … then we’re going to work with them and our community partners to find them another place to go. This is not about, ‘Hey, get your stuff. Go to the curb,’” he said.
Guest Lodge owner Jay Singh said many of the big manufacturers — Kubota, Cargill and the chicken plants — have contractors come through for months at a time and then move on.
“I think (the rules are) not very conducive for that environment, and as a business owner, if the city passes this law, it presents a threat to the city from the standpoint of, ‘Why not build a hotel at the edge of the unincorporated portion (of Gainesville) where these rules don’t apply?’” Singh said.
Lackey said the city is looking at potential exemptions for business travelers, those visiting their loved ones in the hospital and people showing there is no viable alternative place for them to live.
Lackey said the exemptions will be made public in advance of the Dec. 17 voting meeting.
At the planning board meeting, Gainesville city schools social worker Ursula Harris said the school system has an estimated 341 homeless students.
The school system has had an average of 60 students over the past few years living in hotels.
“The environment is not conducive to learning. That’s one of the things that really concerns me (and) why we need to look at housing,” said Gainesville school board member Willie Mitchell, who also spoke up at the planning board meeting.
Chancellor said the school system does “as much as they can for us,” assisting with food, the upcoming holidays and sponsoring the children who play sports.
She said she believes people living in shelters, the hotels and in their cars should be given better opportunities to achieve housing.
“The stuff that they’re building, make it low-income housing so people will be able to get in and have a program that will be able to assist them with the down payment, first month’s (rent) so it will make it easier for them to get in,” she said.
Jessica Tullar, the special projects manager for Gainesville’s community development department, said the city has invested in housing for those with low to moderate incomes.
Tullar said $1.6 million has been used to build four houses on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and for six upcoming cottages on Davis Street.
The city has also used just under $1 million of its annual community development block grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the redevelopment of public housing at the Atlanta Street and Tower Heights apartments, which are now Walton Summit and the proposed Walton Harbor, respectively.
Reporter Megan Reed contributed to this report.
Gainesville City Council
What: Vote on proposed regulations for hotels and extended-stay hotels
When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17
Where: Public Safety Complex, 701 Queen City Parkway, Gainesville