It was a Tuesday afternoon just after Labor Day weekend in 2020 and a flurry of 911 calls were coming in to Dekalb County police dispatchers from the Efficiency Lodge.

One man called to report that armed security guards were being aggressive toward long-staying residents at the motel in Panthersville, a community just southeast of Atlanta.

Then a woman called, saying she lived in unit 118, to report that “people are being kicked out, illegally evicted without notice.”

Another woman called in concerned about the security guards with guns. “Somebody needs to come take control of this, because it’s getting ridiculous,” she said in the recording.

Dekalb County police officers arrived on the scene. Though they’d responded to the panicked calls of residents, the officers described them as suspects.

Officers interviewed two motel residents who called 911; they said they did not want to leave their homes. In the police report, the residents were not referred to as tenants, even though some had lived there for over a year. Instead they were recorded as “guest/suspect” and “offender.” Their alleged debts, down to the cent, were listed next to their names: one woman owed $2,508.70; one man $2,468.00. The report noted that the motel staff had previously warned those who were behind on their rent that they would change the locks on their units — and were now proceeding to do so.

In this and other cases, whether a person qualifies as a tenant would prove crucial.

In Georgia, an eviction requires a court order, but the law doesn’t explicitly make lockouts illegal. In this case, an officer classified the incident as a “crime against property” — a crime committed by the residents themselves.

A Business Insider investigation has found that in cities across the United States, complaints about illegal lockouts are on the rise. Most states require landlords to seek a judge’s approval before removing a tenant, a process that gives tenants a chance to plead their case — and offers them notice if an eviction is approved. But court filings and 911 calls BI obtained from several major cities record tenants complaining of landlords bypassing the legal process, instead resorting to tactics such as changing the locks or cutting off utilities to get them out.

People in informal housing arrangements are particularly vulnerable to lockouts, housing advocates say, because laws in many states leave them out of tenant protections. And a recent wave of anti-squatter laws, in states including Florida, Kentucky and Georgia risks muddling tenants’ right to due process, advocates say.

“Any time somebody doesn’t have formal legal protections they’re at risk of others taking advantage of that,” said Eric Tars, the senior policy director at the National Homelessness Law Center.

An outreach worker, Marshall Rancifer from the Justice for All Coalition, arrived at the Efficiency Lodge that afternoon, hoping to halt the removals. He called 911 to report the lockouts, claiming they violated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new COVID emergency order banning evictions. Then someone from the hotel called 911 to report that Rancifer was engaging in obstruction.

Police officers returned to the motel, where the showdown had escalated. Rancifer had by then been joined by members of the community group Housing Justice League and local journalists. By the end of the day, Larry Johnson, then a DeKalb County commissioner, had called on Atlanta Legal Aid to get involved.

“When I got over there, I was like in a war zone,” Johnson said. “I saw people with vests on with guns. I saw people outside scrambling around and it was just so surreal.” In the midst of it all, he recalled seeing a young girl playing quietly with her toy kitchen set.

“They kicked out about two dozen families that night,” said Lindsey Siegel, an attorney who worked on the case for Atlanta Legal Aid. “It was a traumatic event for the community.”

“DeKalb County botched this,” she said.

Millions of rental gray zones

Traumatic events like this are playing out across the nation, as ambiguous housing arrangements have become more common in the face of a national affordable-housing crisis. Half of all renters in the US spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities — a benchmark used to gauge affordability — pushing more people into less traditional modes of housing. Lacking a traditional written lease or other documentation of their status as renters, these tenants exist in legal gray zones.

A 2019 survey of extended-stay motels in one Atlanta suburb, called “When Extended Stay Becomes Home,” found that roughly a third catered mainly to travelers; the rest were primarily residential. And nearly two-thirds of the residential tenants surveyed said they had stayed there for a year or more.

Data from the US Department of Education shows that during the 2021-2022 school year, nearly 107,000 students reported hotels or motels as a primary nightly residence. More than 900,000 reported living doubled up — meaning they were staying with family or friends without being named on a lease.

Hundreds of thousands of other US families live in unpermitted units, making it difficult to exercise their rights as tenants. A 2008 report from the Pratt Center for Community Development estimated 114,000 illegal rentals, such as basement apartments and rooming houses, in New York City alone; in 2014, a researcher at UCLA estimated 50,000 illegal backyard or garage units just in the city of Los Angeles. A 2020 report from Freddie Mac identified approximately 1.4 million so-called accessory dwelling units nationwide, with the vast majority likely unpermitted.

Others in search of housing have settled long-term into Airbnbs.

Even in locales with more protective laws, tenants in informal or unpermitted housing situations may think twice about rocking the boat, said Harrison Bohn, an attorney at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

“The hardest part about people who live in these really odd lease scenarios of either renting a room or renting a couch,” he said, “is that if you do want to start a process of enforcing your rights, you are disrupting that relationship with your landlord.”

The tagline of the Efficiency Lodge is “stay a nite or stay forever.” But residents, even longtime residents, had to sign a contract stating they were not tenants. For some, the motel was their only home. The property’s address was listed on residents’ IDs; school buses made stops at the motel to fetch children.

“Many of them were never intended to be people’s homes,” Charlie Bliss, another Atlanta Legal Aid attorney who worked on the Efficiency Lodge case, said of long-stay motels. “They’re the home of last resort because there is not affordable housing.”

Some states, such as Nevada and California, spell out when a resident earns tenant status — after, say, 30 days. But Georgia’s regulations leave room for ambiguity. According to rules governing hotels and motels, the state stops collecting hotel taxes after 30 days, at which point a rental becomes an “extended stay,” but those rules are silent on whether the renter gains the protections of landlord-tenant laws. A statute defining the landlord-tenant relationship is vague, saying it begins “when the owner of real estate grants to another person, who accepts such grant, the right simply to possess and enjoy” it.

Asked about how the police handled the lockouts at the Efficiency Lodge that day in September 2020, a Dekalb County spokesperson, Andrew Cauthen, said in an email that while officers told two people they were trespassing, they “were not arrested or required to leave.”

Brandon Turner, the president of Natson Hotel Group, said his company had acquired this and other Efficiency Lodge properties in 2022. He declined to comment on an incident that took place prior to the purchase.

‘It can’t be obvious that people live here’

Darlene DeLaRoca was actually hopeful when she attended her own eviction hearing.

That day in November 2023, she thought she’d get a chance to expose what she saw as her landlord’s illegal pressure tactics. Instead, she found herself out of a home in a matter of minutes.

DeLaRoca and her partner, Mike Rausch, had been renting backyard space on their landlord’s property in unincorporated Clark County, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas, for at least three months at that point. After living out of their truck for a few months, the couple said they traded it for a motor home that, even if it wouldn’t run, got them closer to stability.

They invested over a thousand dollars to move, the couple said: from the cost of towing the motor home to paying the deposit for the backyard space and buying a special extension cord to plug into the electricity in a shed behind the house.

“It was all worth it,” Rausch said. “It was getting us a home and getting us power and off the streets.”

The two lived in the backyard with their dogs and, they said, five other trailers of families who shared the space.

They had found the listing for the lot on Facebook and, at the time, considered it a godsend because of how close the location was to Rausch’s work at Harry Reid International Airport’s car-return center, less than an hour’s walk away.

The couple used a rented U-Haul as their main form of transport. As they were driving back from a Walmart run one day, DeLaRoca said, police officers stopped them in front of the landlord’s house, saying the U-Haul had been reported as stolen. The couple, it turned out, had failed to return it on time.

Once officers walked into the property’s backyard and saw their living arrangement, DeLaRoca said, the couple’s relationship with their landlord, a man named Luis Barraza, soured.

After that, Barraza told them they had to leave.

In a subsequent recording reviewed by BI, DeLaRoca asks for a receipt for $300 she had paid toward her monthly rent. In the recording, a man she identified as Barraza tells her others haven’t asked for receipts and he won’t give her one. After telling him that she’s recording, DeLaRoca asks why he wants them out.

“We established some rules,” the man tells her. “One thing I said is that it can’t be obvious that people live here.” In unincorporated Clark County, where the property is located, operating a short-term rental without a license is illegal.

Barraza cut off their power, DeLaRoca said, blaming a code inspection. County records show inspectors had visited the property after receiving an anonymous complaint that the owner was using his land for short-term rentals; photos they took document at least half a dozen mobile homes there.

But the records make no note of inspectors asking for utilities to be discontinued.

“Code Enforcement did not order utilities to be disconnected in this case,” Stacey Welling, a spokesperson for Clark County, said by email. She said that “it was a violation of County Code to reside in an RV on the property” but that Barraza was not fined.

Barraza did not respond to a request for comment.

When DeLaRoca brought up the utility disconnection during her November hearing in the Las Vegas Justice Court, she hoped her landlord would be held accountable.

Hearing Master David Brown told her their situation wasn’t a normal tenancy, she said. But he still issued a “no cause” eviction order; in Nevada, landlords don’t have to name a reason. DeLaRoca and Rausch had 10 days to move out.

Landlords are generally given wide leeway to use the eviction process even for people not strictly considered tenants, according to Eric Dunn, the director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project.

“Even if the property is not a space that somebody should be living in, if the landlord is seeking to remove the person from it, then you want them to at least go to court,” he said.

A debate over what constitutes a tenant

The battle over the Efficiency Lodge lasted for years.

Lawyers at Atlanta Legal Aid filed suit in 2020 on behalf of three former residents who were locked out of the motel: Armetrius Neason, who had lived there continuously since 2016 before falling behind on his payments in 2020; Lynetrice Preston, who had lived there with two of her children and a grandchild for two years, when she fell behind on her weekly payments after her pandemic employment benefits ran out; and Altonese Weaver, who lived at the motel for a total of 11 months prior to being locked out in July 2020 after she fell behind on her weekly payments, with all of her possessions locked inside.

The case largely centered on the ambiguity in Georgia state law: whether the residents were tenants or merely guests. The Legal Aid lawyers argued that their clients had made a life at the motel and that it was illegal to evict them without going before a judge. “When you leave families susceptible to being locked out of their only home with no notice at the whim of a landlord, that’s a very troubling situation,” Bliss said. “It creates the possibility of abuse and exploitation.”

The Efficiency Lodge had high-powered representation — former Gov. Roy Barnes, whose brother was then a co-owner of the motel chain, who argued that the residents were just like any other inn guests and, having signed a contract accordingly, could be removed without a formal eviction process.

Courts ruled in the residents’ favor in 2021 and 2022 and ordered the Efficiency Lodge to file an eviction if it wanted to remove them. But Barnes appealed the rulings to the Georgia Supreme Court, which finally issued guidance in June 2023 on what constitutes a landlord-tenant relationship, saying it hinges upon a person’s use of a place as a home, with the permission of the owner.

These questions, the guidance states, are dependent on the intent of both parties. The Supreme Court did not make a ruling on the Efficiency Lodge residents, remanding the decision back to a lower court. But the Supreme Court laid out specific factors for courts to take into consideration, such as the length of time someone lives in the property, whether they routinely clean their unit, and whether they can have guests. The court said the granting of permission to occupy the property as tenants can be implicit.

The case settled in August 2023 before the lower court decided the question of whether the three plaintiffs qualified as tenants. Bliss declined to comment on the terms of the settlement; Barnes did not respond to a request for comment sent to his law firm.

Landlords and loopholes

In Nevada, state law is more explicit, laying out that people who stay in a hotel or motel for more than 30 days gain the protections of a tenant. But the Desert Moon Motel in Las Vegas appears to have found a way around the provision.

Tera Strawter and her boyfriend, Khari Varner, had been living at the vintage downtown motel for nearly three months at the time they were locked out in October 2023, far longer than should have been required to trigger the status change. During that time, she gave birth to twins, the couple said in a court complaint. All of their possessions were inside, Strawter said, including her medications.

The night of the lockout, Varner said, he and Strawter managed to get back into the room and slept there. The next day, Strawter took to Facebook to livestream at least two law-enforcement officers as they arrested Varner after telling the couple to leave the unit. Police officers stood by as a motel representative read Strawter a statement warning her that she would be considered a trespasser and would be arrested if she came back.

Varner filed two complaints with the Las Vegas Justice Court, claiming the Desert Moon had illegally evicted them. The second complaint, which BI obtained, asserts that the couple had been living at the motel for almost three months.

One detail would prove critical as the couple fought the motel in court: They had received financial help from two different nonprofit agencies — Puentes Las Vegas and Lutheran Social Services of Nevada — which had each paid for 28-day stays, Strawter said, before she and Varner took over the weekly payments themselves.

Puentes’ president, Guy Girardin, declined to confirm details of this case but said the organization does provide housing assistance and sometimes refers people to extended-stay motels. He said the group caps its payments at 28 days at the request of the motels.

Puentes has seen an increase in the number of people who have made homes at extended stays in recent years, Girardin said, turning a model once geared to business travelers to “almost 100% housing.”

BI sat in on the couple’s hearings over the complaint. The first hearing ended quickly after a judge ruled that Varner had failed to give Desert Moon proper notice, a common occurrence with tenant-lockout complaints, according to a sample of outcomes BI examined and hearings one reporter attended.

At the second hearing over the lockout, in November, the couple explained to Brown, the hearing master, that they had been living in the motel since August through a variety of payment structures. First, the cost of the room was covered by one nonprofit, then another, and then the stay rolled over into their names.

The motel’s owner, Brian Michael Schwalbe, said he thought the couple had agreed to leave. The couple countered that they had verbally told the motel of their intent to stay for at least 90 days.

When Brown said continued occupancy of the motel would make them tenants, Schwalbe said he thought the payments from other entities would change the situation.

“I’m really grappling with the fact that you’ve been there,” Brown said to the couple, adding that if they had proof they had personally paid for even two days after their last, self-funded, 28-day stay, he would rule in their favor.

Varner started to cry. The couple could not provide proof of payment, Strawter later told BI, because they had paid in cash. Brown denied their petition, stating their relationship with the Desert Moon didn’t qualify as a landlord-tenant one under the law.

“I’m sorry, it’s not fun for the judge at all,” he said.

Natalie Bergevin, the manager of Desert Moon, said the motel always considered Strawter and Varner as short-term guests, not tenants. Though the couple had stayed for more than a month, the motel’s agreement was with the paying agencies, not with Strawter and Varner, she said. Bergevin said they had each signed written agreements that they would not be considered tenants.

They weren’t locked out, she added; their key was simply deactivated. She insisted, as Schwalbe had in court, that the couple had previously agreed to leave.

“Long-term residency is never our intention,” Bergevin said, calling the situation “truly unpleasant and unfortunate.”

Matthew Main is an attorney who has represented residents in similarly precarious housing situations in New York City, where state law also grants residents tenants’ rights after 30 days. He said courts had become overly restrictive about whom tenant laws cover, making them less effective at preserving housing stability than at protecting the economic interests of landlords.

“Removing someone from their home is a violent act,” he said, adding that public officials shouldn’t tolerate landlord gamesmanship.

Main said he had seen hearings about illegal evictions of residents in “shady gray areas of housing” get bogged down in fights over whether residents are tenants under the law. “The litigation should take five minutes: Was this person there with permission? That’s the end of the question,” he said. “The reason these proceedings become so lengthy is occupants have to litigate their status.”

Makeshift rooming houses

Paul Panusky, an attorney in Atlanta who represents tenants in unlawful-eviction cases, said he had been getting more calls lately from people living in unlicensed makeshift rooming houses. And Sara Heymann, a community activist with Únete, a volunteer-led housing advocacy group in Chicago, said rooming houses had also become more common in her city.

One single-family home in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, converted into a 16-unit rooming house, illustrates how these illegal conversions increase tenants’ vulnerability. In this case, lacking formal leases, the tenants were even accused of being squatters.

In August 2022, the landlord, Go Home LLC, filed for eviction against one named resident along with “all unknown occupants” of its “single family home” and was granted an eviction through the courts.

BI obtained bodycam footage of what followed: two attempts by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to execute the eviction on what they discovered was a far cry from a single family home.

On the first attempt, in February 2023, the footage shows several rooms connected by a long hallway, each door bearing a number. “You know I’ve had a problem with him before,” an officer said, “where he told us it was one house and there were separate rooms.” The officers departed without removing anyone.

Two months later, the sheriff’s office made a second eviction attempt.

That time, a representative of the landlord assured the officers that individual rooms were not being rented out anymore.

“If we go in there, and it’s numbered, turn right the fuck back around,” one officer said.

The first room they checked was small, with only one window. In the video, the bed was pushed to the end of the room and toys were strewn all over the floor. This time, only remnants of the numbers were visible on the doors; a resident later told a deputy the owner took down the numbers just hours before the deputies showed up.

At one point an officer asks, “Does anyone have a rental agreement? A lease?” But no one appears to have one; one resident says he has text messages.

The lead officer calls off the eviction.

“We can’t pick apart the house,” he told Michael Duckworth, the CEO of Go Home, which manages the property. “The way that you guys are going about this is just really illegal.”

Duckworth told BI that he’d described the property in court as a single-family home on the advice of counsel but that in fact “each room was its own entity.” He said that while he didn’t usually offer traditional leases, the sheriff’s officers declined to evict only because the occupants were colluding to create confusion. “Basically, if there’s anything that looks like it may be off a little bit or if they’re not 100% sure,” he said, “they’re kind of tasked to call it off.”

He wanted the residents out because, he claimed, they were “maliciously refusing to pay” and the company had “lost control of the house.” But he insists he handled the eviction by the book and did everything legally.

Matthew Walberg, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said Go Home failed to properly serve notice to the home’s occupants. “The order for eviction did not describe the property as it was,” he said. “It was all these multiple units and officers couldn’t enforce” the eviction order.

In April of last year, Go Home filed a new motion asking for emergency intervention, claiming all of the tenants were squatters. The judge denied it. He pointed out that Duckworth, representing himself as the landlord’s agent, had admitted that several tenants had rented from him at other properties, casting doubt on his claim that everyone at the property was a squatter.

The eviction order, however, remained in place. Ultimately, the City of Chicago vacated the home over building safety concerns.

Left living under a freeway

After their hearing last November, Darlene DeLaRoca and Mike Rausch faced a 10-day deadline to vacate their trailer home outside Las Vegas. That wasn’t much time given that the trailer still wasn’t working and they’d have to repair it before they could move. If they weren’t out by then, the court-ordered eviction meant a county constable would remove them by force.

But DeLaRoca wasn’t ready to give up. Instead of using their savings to pay for a tow or repair the trailer, she told BI, she and Rausch decided to pay a bond of $250 to appeal their eviction.

Without an attorney, DeLaRoca said, she had trouble figuring out the paperwork and wasn’t sure whether she had filed the appeal correctly. She worried she had doomed their chances of being heard by a judge.

Meanwhile, the constable’s visit loomed. On nights she couldn’t sleep, depressed about the prospect of spending Thanksgiving on the streets, she’d work on drafting a post for a GoFundMe. “The judge says we need to be out in 10 days, we don’t have enough money to move,” she and Rausch wrote. “In 10 days we will be homeless. We are asking for help, because if this landlord can do this to our family and 5 other families and get away with it, he will do it to other families.”

On the day the constables came, DeLaRoca said, everything went wrong. They had been able to pack some things but, in the shuffle, left their bags inside, along with the motor home’s keys.

“We left with the clothes on our backs,” DeLaRoca said by email shortly after they were put out. “I should have been more prepared. It’s my own fault, but it’s kind of hard when you’re not really sure what you’re doing or have the means to do it.”

They didn’t have even a day’s worth of food for them or their two dogs.

The removal upended their lives. The pair spent some nights under a freeway overpass; some days, they resorted to panhandling for food.

Eventually, they separated. On Christmas Day, Rausch sent Business Insider a text message. It was too cold on the street for DeLaRoca, he wrote. He sent her and the puppies to California, where her daughters live. “I am still in Vegas,” he wrote. “Alone.”

The promise of a stable life had gone as quickly as it had come.

DeLaRoca said she wished they had never answered that Facebook rental ad.



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