How a hotel becomes a mother's only housing option
I called Janet* to inform her that we would be able to cover the cost for her and her children to stay at a hotel. A single mother of four children, Janet had spent the last two years living in a hotel—a hotel that had recently shut down, leaving her and her children, ages 13 - 19, on the hunt for another temporary housing situation. Her working hours had been cut due to COVID-19, and upon finding a different extended stay hotel to live in across town, she was struggling to find the means to pay the daily rate of $52.81.
I asked her how many weeks she would like me to pay for, “A month?”
She replied with hope in her voice, “No, that’s too long. I’m committed to finding a new job. I’m going to get us out of here. Let’s do two weeks.”
I can only imagine the hardship she and her children have faced over these last few years. The perseverance and strength she must have to provide some semblance of home despite all the challenges in her life.
Sadly, Janet’s story isn’t an outlier. Many of the families who applied for support through our Freedom Fund were in the same situation. If you’ve been paying attention to the local news, many families have been forced out of motels and extended stay hotels ( Days Inn Shuts Off Utilities To Push Residents Out, People say they’re being forced out of extended stay hotel during pandemic)
At Ashley Park, a neighborhood school in West Charlotte, 15% of the student body self-reported as “homeless.” A McKinney-Vento social worker working with the homeless families at the school estimates that the number is actually much higher, but many families don’t self-report if they’re living with family/friends or in a hotel.
The invisibility of homeless families
Often when we hear the word homeless, we don’t think about a mother with small children staying in a hotel because she has no other option. According to Mecklenburg County data, there were 4,744 documented homeless children in the 2018-2019 CMS school year and that number was on the rise from the previous three years. At least 20% of the homeless students in the 2017-2018 school year were living in hotels/motels, 10% were in shelters, while the rest were doubled up with family/friends.
You may be asking yourself - how this is possible?
It’s important to note, that the average price of rent in Charlotte has gone up 45% since 2010, while income during the same time period has grown an average of 29.6%.
Minimum wage however, has remained flat in North Carolina at $7.25/hour since 2009.
Wages are not the only contributing factor, however. A low inventory of affordable units makes it difficult for many to find housing. For families making below 60% of the area median income, there is a shortage of 34,000 units forcing most to pay well beyond 30% of their income on housing.
But what if a family is income eligible for a housing voucher?
Landlords in Charlotte can legally refuse to accept vouchers or any other form of income including child support, alimony, disability income, etc. Many may think it is easy for a family to secure government administered Section 8 housing. Sadly, the reality couldn’t be any further from the truth.
The average wait time in Mecklenburg County to receive a Section 8 voucher is five to seven YEARS.
Six years ago, the last time Section 8 waiting list opened in Charlotte, 32,128 people applied for a mere 5,000 vouchers… within a 5 day period. Only 220-240 vouchers become available to new families each year as other families exit the system. When the list last opened in 2007, it took seven years while the entire waiting list was exhausted.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, more than a third of families who received new vouchers in Charlotte between 2016 and 2019 couldn’t use them before they expired. Why is that? Because many landlords refuse to accept the housing voucher.
Who is impacted the most?
Of the nearly 32,000 people still on Mecklenburg County’s Section 8 waiting list in 2015, 93% were black, 86% were female, the median household income was $10,000 and 70% of applicants had more than 2 people in the household.
Historical and present day systems and policies have hindered economic mobility for black families and have made this a racial issue. A minimum wage that means a family has to work 105 hours a week (2.6 full time jobs) to afford a market rate two bedroom apartment makes this an economic issue. The fact that these families represent another generation of children who will likely be forced to move from home to home and school to school, as rents continue to rise makes this an education issue. And this harsh reality does not take into account the trauma experienced as a result of racism, transience, and lack of safety that contributes to disparities in physical and mental health.
So what can we do?
Together with 29 organizations, Freedom Communities has signed on to a proposed ordinance that would prevent sources of income distribution (SOID) in Charlotte. SOID dramatically impacts countless families in Charlotte’s ability to find safe, stable, and affordable housing. This issue impacts the entirety of the housing continuum and greatly hinders upward mobility.
Freedom Communities is also partnering with Crosland Southeast in the development of new affordable housing. There are 180 new units scheduled to open this fall off Sugar Creek Road, and another 156 units in Westerly Hills scheduled to open late 2021.
Many other organizations like Charlotte Family Housing, the YWCA, the Salvation Army, and Social Serve are working to find permanent housing for families with children. Because of the high demand, families often wait for months, if not years, on their waiting lists. These organizations and the families they serve need our support now more than ever.
Finding hope in a hopeless situation
If you’ve taken anything away from this article, I want you to believe that despite the nearly impossible situation that so many mothers find themselves in, there is strength, hope, tenacity and a conviction that they will do whatever it takes to better their lives, and the lives of their children.
I just got off the phone with Janet, who I am overjoyed to share was able to find a new apartment for her family through the support of Social Serve. She is scheduled to move in next week, and for the first time in two years, will be in a home of her own. Due to the length of time she had spent living in a hotel, she was bumped to the top of the queue, many families can wait for months if not years.
Without proximity - without a face to the issue, it is easy to live our lives completely blind to the reality that mothers like Janet and families across our city, have no choice but to make a hotel their home.
We didn’t get here overnight, and things won’t start to move in a positive direction until we take many small steps over time to combat the injustices perpetuating our affordable housing crisis. We can no longer let our lack of proximity and awareness be an excuse for inaction. May we all ask ourselves today what we can do, to be part of the solution.
*name changed for anonymity