Shelters in the Suburbs
In many communities, they have become a nexus of crime and undesirable behavior. At the same time, they have also become the housing of last resort for working families and senior citizens who have nowhere else to go. Our SVdP caseworkers will tell you that these motels are providing a service to the community that local municipal governments have failed to provide. They are the homeless shelters of the suburbs.
How did this happen? In the past decade, the average rent in the Atlanta area has risen 69% while the average earnings have risen only 21%. Over a third of renters are rent burdened: they pay in excess of 30% of their income on housing costs leaving them vulnerable to losing that housing over everyday emergencies such as a job loss, medical bill, or loss of a relationship. They are not simply living beyond their means-there are few affordable options. In Georgia, there are only 38 affordable housing units for every 100 people who need them.
Georgia’s “housing wage”, the hourly wage needed to afford a 2-bedroom apartment, is $18.21. We have over a million people who work full time jobs and earn less than $15/hour. In fact, 7 out of 10 of the jobs projected to grow the most by 2026 pay a median wage that is too low for a fulltime worker to afford a modest 1-bedroom apartment. These include food service workers, personal care aides, home health aides and medical assistants.
The “typical” family in these motels has at least one full time wage earner who earns less than $18/hour. Some negative event occurred and they were unable to pay their rent-often by as little as $200. Once evicted they move into the extended stay motel as a temporary solution but soon find themselves “stuck” as the high rent makes it difficult for them to save for deposits and first month’s rent. And it makes it nearly impossible for them to pay the past rent to their previous apartment. Until they make good on the past rent they find themselves unable to find a property owner who will rent to them-even with cash in hand. The only other option they have to living with their children in a motel is living in their car.
So, what is the solution? Recently some communities have tried to reduce crime in these motels by limiting the amount of time a family can live in a motel even though there is no evidence or empirical data to show a correlation between length of stay and crime. It even defies common sense to think that a working stable family is more likely to commit a crime than someone who is more transient. These ill-conceived regulations will only force low income families to move into their cars to “restart” the timing clock on their motel stay -making them more vulnerable to the crime these laws are trying to reduce.
Other laws have been put in place that require extended stay motel guests to own a car. Obvious legal issues aside, does owning a car mean you are less likely to commit a crime? For many of these families, selling their car to pay off their debts is a necessary first step to improve their credit score and obtain more stable housing.
What our SVdP caseworkers can tell you is that there is a better way to offer real hope to families wanting to move out of extended stay motels. Our Motel to Home program-a collaboration between SVdP, UWGA, and many other community partners is designed to do just that. While it is by no means a “magic wand” it provides families with critical knowledge and information, a mentor to help them plan and prioritize, and a network of community and other resources to help them pay off past debts, rebuild their credit, and obtain more stable housing. This is the kind of effort needed to give these families “a hand up” instead of a punitive hand to further punish them for being poor.