The city of Gainesville has done a poor job of explaining why it feels the necessity to further interject the city into the operation of its hotel businesses. As a result it has opened itself to public criticism for a proposal that would increase the amount of government oversight into local businesses offering rooms to rent.
Residents at a meeting of the city’s planning board last week were quick to question the need for new rules related to extended stay facilities that allow tenants to rent rooms on a long-term basis, as well as proposed regulatory changes that would give city government access to personal information about anyone patronizing any local lodging company, regardless of the duration of stay.
In truth, given that the city is considering some pretty broad proposals for intruding in the lodging business without really explaining why there is a need for such action, it’s not hard to understand the position of its critics.
The Times editorial board
- Norman Baggs, general manager
- Shannon Casas, editor in chief
- Cheryl Brown
- David George
- Mandy Harris
- Brent Hoffman
- J.C. Smith
- Tom Vivelo
Among the changes proposed by the city is a policy that would require tenants in extended stay facilities to move out after a maximum of 30 days, and wait at least two weeks before again renting a room in the same facility. It would also limit the total time a lodger could stay at a particular extended stay facility to 60 days in a 180-day period.
Extended stay hotels serve a function by providing housing options for those who, for whatever reason, need something other than more traditional housing. They may be transient workers, in town for a specific project that may last weeks or months; they may be families who can’t afford the monthly cost of rent or a mortgage; they may be local residents who find themselves in between houses or apartments for a period of time.
Like a speaker at Monday’s hearing who has been in extended stay for two years, they may be working 65 hours a week at two jobs, but still unable to afford a permanent home, where often the upfront cost for security deposits and utilities pose financial obstacles even if the monthly payments can be met.
City officials have said the goal of such a limitation is to keep facilities safe, especially in regard to potential fire hazards. What hasn’t been made clear, however, is how a constantly rotating group of lodgers will prove to be safer than someone staying in the same place for a longer period of time.
Presumably the underlying goal is to have the rooms checked when someone moves out or in, but the same objective could be accomplished with a requirement for monthly inspections of the room without forced evacuation.
Some of the residents of extended stay rooms are students who go to school. A social worker for the city school system said at Tuesday’s hearing the system averages about 60 students living in hotels, with another 60 from homeless shelters. Forcing those students to move every 30 days, possibly into different school attendance zones and changing transportation options, will serve no good purpose.
Not to be lost in the debate is the reality the area has a shortage of starter homes, lower end rentals and housing affordable to those in the low- and lower-middle class strata of the economic scale. Bed space in homeless shelters is limited, and extended stay lodging for those that can afford it provides an option to sleeping in the woods or under bridges.
A “point in time” count conducted last winter found 56 homeless, shelterless people living in Hall County.
Another element of the proposed changes would require both traditional and long-term lodging establishments maintain records on both tenants and their guests — including names, addresses, method of payment and form of ID offered — and to make that information available to the city for up to six months after the departure of a room’s occupant.
While we would expect law enforcement to have access to certain information when it is obtained through proper legal channels, as the proposal states in another section, we have to wonder why such records would need to be made available to “the City upon request.” Does the city’s code enforcement office really need to know the name of the guest of someone staying in a motel room three months ago?
On the surface, the proposed changes to the city code seem to be a case of governmental overreach, interjecting city authority deep into the operation of private businesses. There is even a restriction as to how many rooms in an extended stay facility can be used by employees of the facility.
At Monday’s hearing, critics suggested the new lodging requirements, particularly as they apply to extended stay, was part of an ongoing effort by the city to remove from the community those on the lowest rungs of the housing ladder. If the city’s motivation is to improve its image by using the power of government to force those unable to afford traditional housing to leave town, then that’s a sad commentary on its leadership.
It may be that the city has excellent reasons for the proposal as presented, but if so it has not articulated those very well. It needs to better explain why the new rules are “essential to the public’s interest, safety, health, and welfare …” as stated in the proposal and not just an unnecessary interjection of government into the conduct of private businesses and personal lives.