Williamsburg's Homeless & Indigent

P.O. Box 366, Lightfoot, VA 23090
Office: 757-561-3255
"Assisting people in re-gaining hope and a better way of life."

Monday, October 27, 2003

Limits suggested on Va. Beach hotel, motel stays
By SUSAN E. WHITE, The Virginian-Pilot
© October 26, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH -- Before Hurricane Isabel hit, Karen Saum's family sought shelter in an Oceanfront hotel.

When the storm destroyed their three-bedroom trailer in Colony Mobile Home Park, hotel life became more permanent.

``I have no clue where we'd go otherwise,''said Saum, who shares a two-room efficiency suite with her daughter and husband. ``This hotel is saving me totally.''

Saum's family is like countless others who turn to the Beach's hotels and motels during emergencies.

But in some cases, they never leave. Over the years, some of the city's hotels have evolved into long-term housing for low-income residents, and, currently, there's no written plan preventing people from using hotels as housing.

But that could change if city leaders adopt a code banning hotels and motels from renting rooms to the same occupant for more than 30 days.

City officials caution that the ban is one issue among several involving the resort area that they are discussing and that it may not even reach the City Council.

``We know that this is an issue that really impacts some people in a very difficult way,'' said Steven T. Thompson, the city's chief financial officer.

And alternatives are in short supply, especially for struggling low-income families, said the Rev. Randall L. Orwig, pastor of Tidewater United Church of Christ and a member of the Virginia Beach Interfaith Advisory Board.

``It's a conundrum because we know they shouldn't be there and they don't want to be there, but quite frankly, we have a lot of people who have no other place to turn,'' Orwig said.

Some also worry that a 30-day code would force families to bounce from one hotel to another. Such moves could interfere with the permanency that children often long for, said Gay M. Thomas, coordinator of the Beach's school social work services and supervisor of the division's homeless-education project.

``The challenge we have now is to keep the child in the same school,'' Thomas said. ``Every time they move, it's another transition, another adjustment.''

Thomas and city leaders say it's difficult to track how many people live in hotels because they are so transient. Beach schools estimated that 75 students were living in hotels in the spring of 2002.

The hotel residency issue comes as the city prepares for some redevelopment of the Oceanfront. The city is spending $202.5 million on a new convention center, which city leaders hope will spur other development to attract tourists.

One goal of the resort area has been to ensure that visitors have the best experience possible, said Andrew M. Friedman, director of the Beach Department of Housing and Neighborhood Preservation. ``A key part of that is the cleanliness and maintenance of all hotels, period,'' he said.

Over time, city officials have become concerned that some hotels, particularly around the Oceanfront, are being used in a way in which they never were intended, Thompson said.

``In an apartment complex, there's a minimum amount of square footage that is required. It's the same for plumbing, cooking facilities and recreation,'' he said. ``A hotel doesn't come under the same guidelines. So using them for long-term stays may pose a problem.''

In some cases, hotels that attract long-term residents also have become a nuisance to surrounding businesses and homeowners. That was the case with the Virginian Motel Apartments on 24th Street, where some neighbors said they often had problems with trespassing and litter.

``We had children in everybody else's yards, climbing over fences and tearing things down,'' said Barbara Yates, manager of Angie's Guest Cottage on 24th Street. ``Motels are just not conducive to rearing families.''

Yates, along with some other hotel managers and homeowners, has been pressing the city on the hotel residency issue. Although the businesses receive annual inspections, some have become dilapidated, Yates said.

The Health Department shut down the Virginian this summer after finding numerous violations, including insect and rodent infestations, stained mattresses, and dirty walls and ceilings.

Such problems fueled discussions about whether the Beach needed to conduct more comprehensive hotel inspections, as well as questions about how to create more affordable housing.

Several years ago, a team of inspectors from the Health Department, fire marshal's office and housing department worked together to examine a portion of the Beach's hotels and motels. Although each of those agencies is separately responsible for annual inspections, Friedman said the combined effort was a way to further ensure that the businesses were being properly maintained.

Now, city officials want that team to inspect all hotels and motels each year for the next two years to look for significant problems, Friedman said. Those team inspections should determine if more frequent ones are needed, he added.

Friedman's department also has been working with social services, churches and private nonprofit groups to develop a plan to assist hotel transients.

Among other things, Friedman said, they'd like to expand the city's housing programs, including Section 8, which provides rental subsidies to low-income residents. Also needed is an outreach program where social workers would visit families living in hotels to make sure they know that public assistance is available.

The city also is interested in the development of a single-room occupancy housing complex for homeless men and women. Such a complex has been discussed as a regional project.

Doris Brown, property manager of the Seashire Inn on Laskin Road, said she would love to see such opportunities happen. During the winter, the motel often houses up to 35 families, many of whom move in because they can't pass a credit check to get an apartment.

``I've got people who've been here three or four years,'' Brown said. ``They're struggling, but this is also an expensive way to live.''

Although utilities are covered, weekly rates at some hotels can run higher than monthly rental prices. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Virginia Beach is $742. One Oceanfront hotel advertised weekly rates of $249, or nearly $1,000 a month.

Some business owners caution, however, that the homeless aren't the only ones who often stay in hotels long-term. Some are booked with government and business contractors in town on jobs.

``Monthly rentals are a lucrative and important business for us,'' said John E. Uhrin, director of operations for Burlage Mangement, which has five hotels in Virginia Beach.

Friedman said details on how a ban would be enforced or what exemptions might be possible haven't been worked through.

The bigger issue, he said, is making other housing available so that hotels don't become homes.

``Hotels provide a resource for people in emergencies, and that will continue,'' Friedman said. ``But for those families that end up staying longer, we just think there should be better options.''


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