For the past few months, Stefanie Craft, her five kids and two pets, a cat and a dog, have been camped out in the Economy Inn and Suites in North Charleston, S.C. It wasn't her first choice: Black mold crawling up the walls of their rental house forced her hand.
Still, it's home, for now, so they're riding out the pandemic in one room with a "sink-sized kitchen."
Now Craft, 44, who says she has always paid her $325 weekly motel rent on time, is facing eviction. She lost her job supervising a local car wash when the coronavirus shuttered her city. A local church paid her rent this week, she said, but she's terrified about what will happen next. The motel's manager could not be reached for comment about Craft's case.
"I have no clue what I'm going to do," Craft told Stateline in a telephone interview. "We have nowhere to go. That's why we're here."
Most renters are protected from eviction by coronavirus emergency orders. But the new rules don't always apply to people who are paying for motel rooms, a major loophole that could affect thousands of families.
The federal eviction moratorium is limited and applies to only certain rentals, such as landlords who have federally backed mortgages. And some states adopted laws before the pandemic that don't consider motel dwellers tenants -- and therefore don't apply rental protections to them should they lose their jobs.
"The question is, for families who are paying to stay in a motel, are they considered tenants? And if so, under what conditions? And if you have protection, do the motel owners know?" said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on the early care and education of homeless children and young adults.
States have reached different conclusions.
This month, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, ordered local motels and hotels to stop threatening to evict tenants during the pandemic.
Hotels have been devastated by the pandemic, said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. Eight out of 10 hotels in the state either were forced to close or are operating at less than 20% capacity, she said, adding that many are sheltering homeless families and individuals.